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.”