Volume 1, Issue 16 — August 11, 2004

Next Issue: August 25, 2004

Goodbye Mail, Hello Rail

by Doug Mack
August 11, 2004

Trains have not run to St. Paul’s Union Depot in over thirty years. Now, the cavernous space that once teemed with passengers and echoed with the clanging of incoming trains is decidedly quieter. Restaurants fill the ornate lobby, and the U. S. Postal Service uses the old concourse area as a loading dock of sorts to serve the larger post office building next door. The grandeur of the building is apparent from the street, but even during the busy lunch hour, the interior feels distinctly empty and derelict, its luster and status as central landmark now forgotten.

Meanwhile, the surrounding neighborhood is one of the fastest-growing in the city. Lowertown, as this community on the eastern edge of downtown is known, has become fertile ground for developers, with a bumper crop of lofts, both newly-constructed and forged from old warehouses and factories. Artist studios, small internet companies, and coffee shops provide the usual signals of a historic neighborhood on the rebound. But Union Depot, once the defining landmark of this section of the city, stands underused, its colonnade marching along Fourth Street without the swagger such grand architecture generally evokes. On the other side is the Mississippi riverfront, not forgotten, but long-neglected and effectively cut off from downtown by the barrier that is this massive edifice.

Plots of and dreams for reinvigoration of the building — and using it as a gateway to future redevelopment along the river — have been brewing since the last trains left, and the Lowertown Redevelopment Corporation, downtown business leaders and officials at all levels of government have been seriously working on long-term planning for the site since the mid-1990s. These plans also include the adjacent 16-story post office building, and the whole site, at 12 acres, comprises an impressively large swath of land to be suddenly opened up for redevelopment near a major city’s downtown core. Geographically and architecturally, the site has unique and important assets that offer superb opportunities for mixed-use development, but because the USPS owns the concourse and adjacent building, the grand schemes of redevelopment have been, in a sense, stuck in the station.

It appears that this is about to change, after lengthy efforts and several false alarms and close calls. The USPS announced in February that its current mail center in Eagan could be expanded to handle the mail processing now done in the downtown St. Paul riverfront facility. Though the decision to move is not final, and the process would certainly not happen overnight, Weiming Lu, the President of the Lowertown Redevelopment Corporation, says that the relocation is finally past the hypothetical and into the work-out-the-details stages, which, he says, “gives us the OK sign to move ahead on the Depot redevelopment.”

The redevelopment scenario with the greatest promise and the one that will have the greatest long-term and widespread impact, centers on the re-establishment of Union Depot as a transit hub, a central location serving the many forms of rail transit that are expected to develop in the Twin Cities in the next decade: the Central Corridor light rail line (which will complement the recently-opened Hiawatha Line), a commuter rail line to Hastings and a high-speed line to Chicago, as well as the Greyhound and Jefferson bus services. Union Depot’s location and existing facilities make it the logical choice for a multi-modal transit hub, a determination made by a task force of city, county and state officials, as well as businesspeople and others, which sought to determine the best site for such a hub.

The mere redevelopment of the site would provide an important amenity to St. Paul by creating a landmark connecting the central business area to the riverfront, but Union Depot would be elevated to a status of true regional importance if the multi-modal rail hub plan comes to fruition. Union Depot would once again thrum with life as travelers and workers passed through; the historic building would again feel young and lively, the heart of downtown.

This movement towards full redevelopment will occur in phases over the course of several years after the postal facilities move. Phase I, which would take an estimated four years to complete, entails moving Amtrak, Greyhound and Jefferson Lines stations from their current sites to Union Depot, as well as establishing the site as a Metro Transit bus hub.

For the long term, despite the financial challenges (estimated cost: $275 million-$300 million) and other potential roadblocks hindering rapid progress on such a large-scale redevelopment effort, a series of factors points to the necessity and likelihood of successful implementation of the redevelopment plans. The site is large enough to serve as a multi-modal hub and, just as important but less tangible, it has the historical and geographic cachet to make it appealing to riders of the various rail lines. Lu notes that when the CEO of Amtrak toured the Union Depot site, at the invitation of Lu and then-mayor Coleman, he was impressed by the surrounding area; here, he found a genuine, vibrant community, something lacking in many central city neighborhoods in which Amtrak has considered locating stations.

A downtown station, particularly one in a landmark historic building, would also well serve the proposed Central Corridor light rail line; Union Depot would be not just a grand station for Twin Cities transit, but, in a sense, the Grand Central Station. The early success of the Hiawatha light rail line (where ridership in July, the first full month of operation, was nearly double officials’ projections) bodes well for the expansion of this system, and the elevation of Union Depot to regional, multi-modal transit hub, and a true city landmark.

“So much of St. Paul’s early history was written here,” Lu says, “and we have an opportunity to recapture this, and also use Lowertown’s 21st-century amenities, and [the area’s] natural amenities. This is the most important part of St. Paul’s future. Everyone realizes the importance of the Depot.”

With this abundant opportunity in mind, and the USPS move in place, city officials and neighborhood groups are blowing the dust off their plans; the most arduous part of the redevelopment process, waiting for the site to become available, nearly over. It will still be a few years before the USPS can move its extensive facilities, to be sure, but this move has at least gone from hypothetical to imminent. The trains are coming, and with them, one can only hope, the long-awaited redevelopment of the St. Paul’s riverfront.

Doug Mack (doug@professoryeti.com) also writes for the Preservation Journal of Saint Paul.

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