In Monday’s edition of Cityscape, Steven Dornfeld suggests that he knows Union Station in Washington, D.C., and that the Union Depot is no Union Station. On this, at least, he’s right; Union Depot is in a much better position to succeed than was Union Station.
Dornfeld reports the “after” of Union Station but omits the “before,” an important part of the discussion.
Like Union Depot, critics greeted plans for Union Station’s remodeling with doubt. And who could blame them? In 1988 the Washington Post described Union Station’s neighborhood as a “blighted 10-block area.” Who would suddenly decide to travel through it, let alone shop there? Before Union Station’s renovation, the now-thriving Capitol Hill neighborhood where it is located was “depressed,” said David Ball, president of Union Station Redevelopment Corp. “We were sort of the catalyst.”
If this sounds familiar, it is because it echoes the transformation of St. Paul’s Lowertown in recent years. Lowertown has already proved its ability to be a regional destination, with its Farmer’s Market that attracts 25,000 people on any given weekend; the Art Crawl, which attracts more than 40,000 people each year; and a proposal for millions of dollars of private investment to bring the St. Paul Saints there. Evidence of successful small businesses is all around in Lowertown and downtown St. Paul, including Black Dog Café, Heartland Restaurant, Bin Wine Bar and, most recently, Amsterdam Bar & Hall.
It is worth noting that this all happened before the Union Depot project.
A strong partnership for the long view
In addition to treading old, clichéd ground, Dornfeld overlooks the value of the project’s investment in preserving an important part of Twin Cities’ history for future generations. Recognition of the need to play the long game is a part of the strong partnership between the business community and local and federal governments, who are making this a significant investment in transit and enhanced regional mobility.
Dornfeld notes that Ramsey County believes it will take time for this vision to materialize at the Union Depot, and then expounds about the precedent and potential for near-term failure. This is a small-minded view.
Determining a project’s success in a short time frame is unrealistic. The private sector does not take this approach. In D.C., it took federal transportation investments to give people a way to get there. Private investments gave them a reason to go. Once Union Station became a pleasant place to pass through, public and private offices located nearby, drawn by the accessibility. Restaurants and hotels followed. More public and private investment followed them.
We can have that success in St. Paul. Indeed, the private investment has already begun.
We have a good thing going
Transit ridership in the Twin Cities is on the rise, and public demand for expansion of the system is growing. Everyone is already familiar with the success of the Hiawatha Line and its 30,500 daily riders — much higher than projected — and the clear demand for light rail along the Central Corridor. We, too, can bring people into the capital city, through a beautiful station, surrounded by homes, offices, and eating and shopping. We can and will build upon the vibrant arts and cultural programming that already blossoms in this neighborhood.
With the successful revitalization of Lowertown, we have a good thing going. Unlike the challenges that Union Station had to overcome, our Depot will feed off and build on that momentum in addition to creating a hub for future growth.
Commissioner Jim McDonough is chair of the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority; Matt Kramer is president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce; Susan Haigh chairs the Metropolitan Council; and Chris Coleman is the mayor of St. Paul.