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Union Depot project: Another development flop in St. Paul?

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Monday hailed the depot renovation and construction of the nearby light-rail transit as “a model for the nation.” But I’m worried.

Using St. Paul’s Union Depot as a backdrop, federal transportation officials joined with Gov. Mark Dayton and local officials Monday morning in urging public support for President Obama’s $447 billion jobs legislation.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood hailed the renovation of the depot and the construction of the nearby Central Corridor light-rail transit (LRT) as “a model for the nation” in how to improve transportation infrastructure and put Americans back to work.

Ray LaHood
Ray LaHood

Flanked by dozens of construction workers, Federal Transit Administration chief Peter Rogoff said federal dollars are helping “rebuild the depot to the grandeur it will have again” as a regional transportation hub.

“These are the kinds of projects that we need to not only replicate, but accelerate, all across the country,” Rogoff said.

Ramsey County is sinking a hefty $243 million into the acquisition and renovation of the 85-year-old Lowertown structure, with more than $124 million coming from federal sources. Construction is scheduled for completion by the end of next year.

The depot has been closed to passenger rail traffic since 1971. At its peak, it served some 280 trains and 20,000 passengers a day in the 1920s.

As a native of St. Paul and an East Metro resident for most of my life, I would love to see Union Depot project succeed. But I fear it could easily become the latest and largest in a long line of economic development flops in St. Paul.

Proponents see the renovated facility as “the premier multimodal transportation hub of the region,” accommodating rail, bus, bicycle and auto transportation. In addition, they describe it as a “vibrant new civic hall” for community and cultural events, and “a new platform for growth in St. Paul.”

The depot has 95,000 square feet of retail and public space that the county hopes to use to attract visitors and “provide a revenue stream to support and sustain Union Depot operations.”

“It is a concept that has been implemented with great success across the country, including San Francisco’s Ferry Terminal, New York City’s Grand Central Station and Washington, D.C.’s Union Station, among others,” says HR&A Advisors Inc., a New York economic development consultant employed by the county.

As a former Washington correspondent, I am most familiar with Union Station, which was renovated in the late 1980s. Any comparison between that facility and the St. Paul depot seems like a bit of a stretch.

D.C.’s Union Station serves eight different Amtrak lines, with some 12,500 passengers who board or disembark from trains every day. In addition, it is the busiest station for Washington Metro’s rail transit system, with nearly 33,000 riders entering the station every day. All told, the Union Station attracts more than 90,000 visitors a day.

Located just a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol, Union Station has 210,000 square feet of retail space. It is home to more than 100 shops and six full-service restaurants. Despite all of the foot traffic, when I was last visited four years ago, about a third of this space appeared to be vacant. The leasing agents did not respond to my request for current occupancy figures.

In contrast, St. Paul’s Union Depot will serve two Amtrak trains a day that now utilize a spartan station in the Midway area. Trains operating on the $957-million Central Corridor LRT line, set to open in 2014, will stop on Fourth Street in front of Union Depot. By 2030, that LRT stop will serve nearly 4,000 riders per weekday, though most will have no reason to enter the depot unless there are very strong attractions.

Over the years, proponents also have talked about Union Depot eventually serving high-speed rail from Chicago, and commuter rail in the Red Rock corridor from Hastings and the Rush Line corridor from Forest Lake.

However, none of these projects appears to be very realistic at this time. High-speed rail hit a pronounced speed bump in the form of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators in that state. And neither the Red Rock nor the Rush line is included in the Metropolitan Council’s 2030 transportation plan.

Studies indicate that the 2030 ridership for rail in the Red Rock and Rush Line corridors would be lower than the first-year ridership for the $317-million Northstar commuter rail line, which in itself was disappointing. In 2009-10, Northstar attracted fewer than 2,000 riders per weekday, far below the pre-construction estimate of 3,400. The public operating subsidy required was more than $20 per ride.

(At least Northstar ridership numbers are moving in the right direction. In August, the line averaged nearly 2,700 riders per weekday, according to Metro Transit.)

County officials say Union Depot also will be a stop for Greyhound and Jefferson Lines buses, serve as the terminus for nine Metro Transit bus routes and have charging stations for electric cars.

Josh Collins, communications manager for the Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority, says the county recognizes the initial transportation service at the depot “isn’t going to generate a lot of traffic” and that “it’s going to take some time” to achieve the county’s vision for the facility.

That’s where the 56,000 square feet of leaseable retail/restaurant space and 38,000 square feet of public space come in. Collins says the county hopes to attract an anchor tenant that will draw other retailers, develop a small-tenant marketplace and program the public space for community and cultural events.

“I don’t think anyone expects that as soon as we cut the ribbon next year, we’re going to have a bustling retail space,” Collins says. “It’s going to take some time to build up foot traffic.”

Unfortunately, the track record for new retail development in St. Paul is not encouraging. Town Square, Bandana Square, Galtier Plaza and the World Trade Center all had retail components — and all were unsuccessful.

In the late 1990s, the city of St. Paul subsidized the construction of a 13-story, $101-million building to lure Lawson Software from Minneapolis. The city owns about 15,000 square feet of retail/restaurant space in the building and has had considerable difficulty filling it, despite bargain-basement lease arrangements. Pop! was the latest restaurant there to flop.

A local wag once observed, all too accurately, “St. Paul is the only city in America where a McDonald’s located on the main street could fail.”

Today, local and federal officials can congratulate themselves for preserving a grand old building from St. Paul’s past. We’ll have to wait five, 10, maybe 20 years to see if they achieved their grander vision for the future.