Ramsey County seeks partners for depot project

St. Paul is actively seeking partners to help fill the newly renovated Union Depot.
regionalrail.org
St. Paul is actively seeking partners to help fill the newly renovated Union Depot.

Ramsey County officials are seeking up to three private-sector partners to assist in their high-stakes effort to transform St. Paul’s Union Depot into a vibrant transportation hub, small-tenant marketplace and community gathering space.

County officials are betting the house — $243 million to be exact — that they can turn the little-used and long-neglected depot into “one of America’s great public buildings and transit hubs for the 21st Century.”

“This beautiful station surrounded by homes, offices, eating and shopping, will build upon the vibrant arts and cultural programming that already blossoms in this neighborhood,” says Commissioner Jim McDonough, chair of the Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority.

The costly renovation effort is scheduled for completion by the end of next year. The 85-year-old 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. The building has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1974.

The county has issued requests for proposals from private firms to:

  • Provide a full range of management services for the 290,000-square-foot building and 33-acre site. The building includes 39 privately owned condominiums, a restaurant and banquet facility that was in operation before the renovation began, some 90 underground parking spaces and 1,100 surface parking spaces.
  • Develop and implement a comprehensive retail, cultural and event strategy for the depot. The building includes 62,400 square feet of leasable space and another 45,000 square feet of public space that can be used for large events, retail kiosks and other activities. The county envisions “a vibrant, small-tenant marketplace that complements transit services and supports the economic success of the project.”
  • Build out and operate a full-service bicycle center that would serve bike enthusiasts and commuters. The center would have — at a minimum — bike lockers, showers and locker rooms, and self-repair bike facilities. But the county also invites proposals that include bike sales and rental, repair services, food and beverage offerings, and community classes.

Proposals for all three functions are due by Feb. 21. The county leaves open the possibility for a single firm to both manage the building, and develop the retail and cultural activity.

Union Depot is situated in St. Paul’s Lowertown area, an 18-block historic district where redevelopment  over the last several decades has transformed warehouses and related buildings into housing, bars and restaurants.

Still, the challenge for the county and its prospective partners will be to develop enough foot traffic in the depot to support retail enterprises.

Two trains a day
Once the renovation is completed, Amtrak will shift its operations to Union Depot, but that means just two trains a day. Greyhound, Jefferson Lines and Metro Transit buses also will utilize the facility.

The Central Corridor light-trail transit (LRT) line, scheduled for completion in 2014, will operate on Fourth Street in front of the depot, with a station located there. However, most LRT riders will have no reason to enter the depot unless something draws them in.

The county’s three requests for proposals also talk about Union Depot serving as a hub for high-speed rail service from Chicago and for the Red Rock commuter rail line from Hastings. However, as the county acknowledges in a footnote, there are no assurances that that either of these rail lines “will be funded or completed” in the foreseeable future.

Depot renovation efforts have been attempted in other cities with mixed success. Local officials like to point to Washington, D.C.’s Union Station, home to six full-service restaurants and more than 100 shops.

However, that facility is located just a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol, one of the nation’s top tourist attractions. It serves eight different Amtrak lines and is the busiest station for Washington Metro’s rail transit system.

In comparison, the Union Station in Indianapoliswas renovated in the early 1980s and converted into a festival marketplace with restaurants, bars and specialty shops.  Within a decade, the last marketplace tenant had departed, though a hotel still occupies part of the building. (The hotel offers the opportunity to spend the night in one of 26 authentic Pullman sleeper cars resting on their original tracks.)

One major problem for the Indianapolis depot: It, too, served only a few a trains a week.

Erik Ledbetter, a Maryland consultant who specializes in transportation museums, took a look at the failure of the Indianapolis effort and wrote an article entitled, “How Not to Restore a Railroad Union Terminal. Ledbetter concluded that train stations work best as train stations and that retail works best “when the station is also still a station.”

Still, St. Paul and Ramsey County officials remain optimistic about their depot renovation efforts. Writing for MinnPost in September, four of them — Commissioner McDonough, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, Met Council Chair Susan Haigh and St. Paul Chamber of Commerce President Matt Kramer — said the depot project will build on the successful revitalization of Lowertown and create “a hub for future growth.”

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by frank watson on 12/22/2011 - 09:05 am.

    I hope this works because the “gang of 7 Ramsey County Commissioners” love to dabble in the private sector. 243 million for this and 350 million for the Vikings. As long as its not their money I guess. Spend spend spend spend. Look for another increase in your property taxes to pay for this.

  2. Submitted by James Hamilton on 12/22/2011 - 10:02 am.

    Pardon my cynicism, but isn’t it a bit late to begin looking at how to “Develop and implement a comprehensive retail, cultural and event strategy for the depot”?

    As a St. Paul / Ramsey County resident, I have no choice at this point but to hope the project can at least be self-sustaining. I’ve gotta’ say, though, that I took a look at an aerial view courtesy of Goodle and the Depot looks pretty forlorn on the south-east edge of downtown.

    I’d be interested in knowing how many buses a day will visit the Depot. The current Greyhound depot on University Ave. is barely more than a shelter.

  3. Submitted by Adam Platt on 12/22/2011 - 10:03 am.

    Steve’s point is well taken. How are you going to compel people to use the Depot, or avail themselves of amenities, when there will be very few people coming in or out of it?

    Amtrak’s local service is at 8a and 10:30p, meaning Union Depot will be bustling just before and well after the downtown business day, with a 14 hour interval in between. And Amtrak rarely carries more than 100 passengers in or out of MSP on a given train.

    Long-distance bus riders are not typically of the demographic that supports festival marketplace and artisanal merchants.

    And because the LRT will not use the Depot (see Cleveland, Los Angeles for examples that do), one must assume most LRT and Metro Transit bus commuters will ignore it. LA Union Station attracts thousands of commuters and long-distance travelers each day but does not have more than a motley group of quick-service convenience stores and fast food options.

    The Depot is also not exactly central to the parts of downtown St. Paul with the most pedestrian or daytime activity.

    I am not one to predict failure, but this is an ambitious effort indeed and skeptics are more likely realists.

  4. Submitted by Francis Ferrell on 12/22/2011 - 02:11 pm.

    Isn’t about time the naysayers look to the vision this Depot renovation provides for the future and the possibilities that can spring forth?

    Yes, other places have had their transportation dreams mottled by various factors and lack of vision. Why then must this be the case for St.Paul’s Depot renovation vision? Can’t we take from the negative lessons learned from other cities’ past failures and use those experiences for our benefit? What is wrong for preparing for a future transportation that will accommodate the 21st Century technologies and transportation systems? Come on folks where is your proactive optimism and vision for greater things to come?

    There are already condos/townhouses in the Depot complex. There are spaces for unique developments and businesses. The possibilities of development and growth seem endless if we realistically plan for the present and future in a stalwart way.

    It’s time to shout to the high heavens of civilization that St.Paul and Ramsey County have great things in store for its residents and Minnesota. It’s time to scream for a High Speed Rail[HSR], LRT, streetcar, commuter and distance bus transit, and civic hub or terminus.

    Yes, the initial investment costs will be high. Yes, the initial returns might be small compared to initial investitures. But, folks, unlike other cities which failed or partially succeeded in their [transportation] publics works renovation projects we have the benefits of their good or bad experiences to work from.

    St. Paul and Ramsey County have a unique opportunity to be ahead of the nation in taking the Depot renovation to the future of transportation public works projects. We will be ready for the new mass transit systems when they reach St.Paul and Minnesota.

    Crying about there is no use for such a ‘grandiose’ project, nor, nay-saying that this project will never work is un-American and un-Minnesotan! Where is that can-do ethic we are famous for. Look at the jobs, quality-of-life, and conveniences this Depot Renovation could and would provide.

    Look at the possibilities of leaving downtown Minneapolis or St.Paul via LRT or express buses and be in Downtown Chicago’s Union Terminal via HSR in less than three hours max! Or, Duluth in less than a hour!

    I may not see all these amenities in my lifetime, as I grower older, but I can surely appreciate being a part of and contributing to a wonderful transportation future history for St.Paul and Ramsey County. Think about it! —“Build it, and, they will come!”— Ray Ginsella.

  5. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 12/22/2011 - 02:57 pm.

    Members of the public might be invited to recommend the kinds of things they’d like to be part of the newly restored depot. Perhaps to include—–

    St.Paul Community Ed classes and group activities; some of the hundreds of non-credit classes for adults offered by the University’s OLLI program; a gallery featuring the work of past and current Minnesota artists in various media; a bookshop featuring new and used books about Minnesota or by Minnesota writers; a performance space for school, amateur or professional theater, music and dance groups; ethnic restaurants and shops (a la Minneapolis’s Midtown Market); a breakfast restaurant/coffee shop for those arriving on the Empire Builder or bus/train/bike commuters on their way to work. And all at prices affordable for the 99%.

    Others must have plenty of additional ideas.

  6. Submitted by Francis Ferrell on 12/22/2011 - 05:20 pm.

    To Bernice Vetsch;

    Great Ideas. Especially the adult education classes. However, instead of the UofM running this continuing ed program let Metro State; the “working adult school” with a more older diverse student body; run the program’s classes. It is nearly a stone’s throw away from the depot.

    Also, your coffee shop or oversized diner idea for the Empire Builder would be great for those coming and going on all trains but could serve all those transiting bus/LRT passengers waiting to make connections. It might even be a great pit stop place for the 99% who want a good plebeian place to eat with ‘travel’ or ‘commuter’ ambiance.

    Again great ideas. To all the naysayers, see the forthcoming ideas sprouting up?

  7. Submitted by James Hamilton on 12/22/2011 - 06:15 pm.

    “If you build it they will come” normally only works in the movies, Mr. Ferrell. What we seem to have here is a 290,000 square foot, quarter-billion dollar renovation looking for a use. While I’m not a hard-core “let the market do it” guy, I’ve seen enough development failures here in St. Paul over the last 30 years to have come to the conclusion that local government isn’t good at real estate development.

    Over that same period, I watched Grand Ave. return from the dead, primarily becuase property values and rents had dropped low enough to make it feasible to open a business there. We’ve lacked the fortitude to let downtown property values drop to the point where it is once again attractive to entrepeneurs.

    I’m glad to see some questions being raised about St. Paul’s involvement in the Penfield project and can only regret that I wasn’t paying enough attention when the Depot project passed to throw in my 2 cents.

  8. Submitted by David Greene on 12/22/2011 - 06:55 pm.

    I love Bernice’s global market idea. The Midtown Global Market is great and I’d love to have access to something similar during my work days downtown St. Paul. It seems like the perfect building for such a thing. The waiting area is certainly large enough.

    I’ve always wanted a Holy Land in Lowertown.

    Since St. Paul is a refueling stop for the Empire Builder, it would make some sense to put a bunch of concession stands near the platforms so travelers passing through the Twin Cities might hop off the train for a stretch and a quick snack for breakfast or before turning in for the night.

  9. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 12/23/2011 - 08:47 am.

    The problem is that the station is a significant walk from the current centers of daily activity in St. Paul. Trying to create a new center of commercial activity away from the existing struggling one is courting doom for one or the other areas.

    Long-term visions are great, the problem is that the bills of the tenants of the station will have to be met monthly. And the small boutique/artisanal tenants mentioned above won’t have the reserves to wait out even 6-12 months of new shop expenses and sub-par sales.

  10. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 12/26/2011 - 01:53 pm.

    I see your point, Neal, but tearing down this depot just to build another one a few blocks away doesn’t make sense either. This is the depot history has dealt us, so we need to make the best of it. It’s up to the people of Minnesota to be thoughtful and creative enough to make this a going concern.

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