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St. Paul’s Union Depot project will build upon momentum of Lowertown’s transformation

The Union Depot project is an investment in preserving an important part of Twin Cities' history for future generations.
Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society
The Union Depot project is an investment in preserving an important part of Twin Cities’ history for future generations.

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.

The Lowertown Farmer's Market attracts 25,000 people on any given weekend.
Flickr/CC/Jason DeRusha
The Lowertown Farmer’s Market attracts 25,000 people on any given weekend.

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.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by James Hamilton on 09/21/2011 - 10:43 am.

    With due respect to the authors, let’s all tuck this piece away and revisit it every 10 years.

    I’ll be more than happy to see Union Depot succeed, but over the past 3 decades I’ve heard too many attempts to explain why this one will work where others have failed.

    As hard as it is for many to accept, St. Paul is a very small town and Ramsey County a very small place. Frankly, it is also a scary place for many suburbanites, who would no more consider coming downtown than they would sending their kids to school here. We are also a poor community, with 16.4% of Ramsey residents living below the poverty level in 2009. (That number undoubtedly is higher today.)

    The numbers cited by the authors are actually quite small. 25,000 visitors to the Farmers Market on a beautiful sunny weekend and 40,000 hipsters doing the Art Crawl once a year are a far cry from the traffic needed to make the Depot a success.

    Light rail has worked in Minneapolis because downtown Minneapolis was a destination before the line was built. Light rail did not make Minneaplis a destination and light rail, on its own, will not make St. Paul a destination. (I suggest looking at where private money has been invested in building housing along the Central Corridor. So far, it appears to be concentrated in Minneapolis and at the western end of University Ave in St. Paul.)

    I would not expect the authors to do anything other than defend the project they’ve invested in so heavily, personally and professionally. I would appreciate it, however, if they would acknowledge the risks inherent in this project and tell us what they plan to do to fill the Depot once it’s built and how they plan to pay for it until it can support itself.

  2. Submitted by Andy Gifford on 09/21/2011 - 11:21 am.

    No, James. LRT did not make Minneapolis a destination. But that’s besides the point. What it did do, however, was make mass transit more palatable.

    Case in point: Target Field. Metro Transit was able to extend the line down to the gates of the ballpark and also connect the Hiawatha Line to the Northstar line. And when the Southwest Corridor is built, we’ll have a full-fledged transit hub.

    That’s all it takes sometimes. I seem to remember former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles-Belton proposing an Amtrak depot on the current site of the Shubert (now Cowles) Theater. However well-intended, it was very ill-conceived. But what LRT has done has get the ball rolling on development. Who knows…perhaps the St. Paul Saints will get their proposed ballpark built down there with this added infrastructure.

  3. Submitted by James Hamilton on 09/21/2011 - 12:58 pm.

    Andy, my comments were not directed at light rail, which will stand or fall regardless of the success or failure of the Union Depot project. I suspect, however, that LRT will be more about bringing people from St. Paul to Minneapolis than the reverse.

  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/21/2011 - 01:19 pm.

    Are you talking about this Union Station in DC?


    Union Station is the largest intermodal transportation center in the Washington metropolitan area and the mid-Atlantic region. Located just east of Washington’s central business district and blocks from the U.S. Capitol, Union Station plays a major role in the travel and commuting needs of thousands of residents and visitors to the national capital region from D.C., Virginia, Maryland and the entire East Coast…Union Station is a complex of several structures and serves multiple functions. In addition to the Metrorail station, it contains Washington’s Amtrak intercity passenger rail station, the terminal for MARC and Virginia Railway Express commuter rail services, a bus terminal serving intercity and local buses, a retail center of shops and restaurants, a community gathering place with meeting rooms and public spaces, and a tourist attraction….Each weekday 23,000 commuters and intercity rail riders make 45,000 trips through the station on 229 Amtrak, MARC and VRE trains and 35,000 passengers enter and leave the adjoining Metrorail station. The Metrorail Station at Union Station is the busiest station in the Metrorail system, with close to 70,000 passengers entering and exiting daily, including 18,000 passengers transferring between Metrorail and railway services (Amtrak, MARC and VRE)….

    (end quote)

    Add in 90,000 tourist visits every day.

    I would love to have the depot succeed to that point but color me very skeptical. You’ve set a very high bar when you say that the depot in St. Paul has a better set-up than in DC!

    Is St. Paul a world-class tourism, business and government center? Is there a long and continued history of heavy rail traffic with a locus at the depot? Is it a city where it is far, far easier and cheaper to leave your car at home? Is it a city that has millions of secure well-paid jobs right outside the doors which the depot forms a gateway to?

    As for the DC station sparking revitalization of that area of DC, c’mon, get real! It’s just a couple blocks away from the Capitol complex, the Russell, Dirkson, Hart and Rayburn office buildings, the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian Museums, etc., etc.,–all there before the redodeling of the station.

    Tourism, the cost of land in DC, the general urban revival of the 80’s and 90’s, and the continued growth of the federal government were all bigger factors in the revitalization of that area the Union Station.

    The future of our depot is certainly not as bright, I’m really sorry to say.

  5. Submitted by John Olson on 09/22/2011 - 07:30 am.

    As much as I value the historical significance of Union Depot in St. Paul, the harsh reality is that we only have TWO Amtrak trains come through: one in the morning heading east to Chicago, and another in the evening heading west to Seattle.

    Other stations that I have gone through (including Boston, Chicago, D.C.) all have a mix of regional rail service and Amtrak service.

    I have to go to Chicago in November. A RT ticket on Southwest Airlines is $159. A RT ticket on Amtrak is the same price. However, the Amtrak schedule would require an additional night’s stay in Chicago, plus the 16 or so hours required to travel.

    Until the day comes where Amtrak does more than one train eastbound and one westbound, I am not optimistic that this will become a hub of any sort.

  6. Submitted by Mike Hicks on 09/23/2011 - 04:45 pm.

    It’s unfortunate that Amtrak’s service will be so limited to start out with, but the depot’s restoration would only become more expensive if we’d waited.

    There have been plenty of opportunities for the rail link to Chicago to be set up over the years. It should have been built 20 years ago at least, back when high-speed rail along the corridor was first really studied in significant depth. I went to an open house for it when I was 12 years old, and I’m 32 now. I’m sick of previous generations waiting to get it done.

    While the price to get to Chicago via Amtrak doesn’t look very favorable, think of all of the other stops along the way — To fly to La Crosse and back, it’d cost $460 or more, but Amtrak only costs $55. Point in the opposite direction and check out the costs to/from Fargo, where an airline round-trip runs $613 versus $40 for Amtrak. While it’s a small market, they’d compete really well with planes and cars if only the trains stopped in Fargo during daylight hours.

    Anyway, enough of that. I’m hopeful that the bus station will help keep the depot busy enough until more trains stop there.

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