The midweek rush hour at St. Paul’s Union Depot was decidedly unhurried one recent morning.
A few Amtrak passengers lounged in a special gold-trimmed waiting room, while a silent gaggle of commuters slipped toward the Green Line light-rail stop outside. Workers meticulously prepared the historic train station’s waiting room for an impending gala.
As planned, Union Depot has attracted most all modes of transport since reopening in 2012 after a $243 million renovation. In June, Metro Transit began light-rail service connecting the downtowns of St. Paul and Minneapolis, a month after Amtrak’s Empire Builder passenger rail returned to the station after a 43-year hiatus. Seven bus lines now operate out of Union Depot, and there are car ride-sharing and bicycle facilities, as well.
What appears to be missing from the multimodal transit play — at least for now — is a robust offering of retail shops and restaurants, so common at other historic train stations across the country.
Beyond Christos, the popular Greek restaurant and caterer that has been a fixture at the station since 1996, the only retail amenity appears to be a small cart stocked with self-serve bubble-gum and candy dispensers.
It’s not for lack of effort. The Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority, which owns Union Depot, has hired a nationally known leasing firm to lure prospective tenants. JLL, the Chicago-based commercial real estate firm, is currently “taking the pulse” of the depot’s users to determine the mix for busy commuters.
“We knew from the beginning that we needed to see how the character and usership of the building developed before we decided on what direction to take,” explained Chad Macy, JLL’s vice president of leasing. Preliminary indications point to a coffee shop, “grab-and-go” food offerings and other sundries, he said.
Yet the spectacular nature of the building itself may very well challenge efforts to attract tenants.
“It’s not a traditional space, it’s not just a vanilla box,” Macy said. “It has its own energy.” All told, 16,000 square feet of space has been set aside for leasing, although a third has already been claimed by Christos.
The painstaking renovation of the neo-classical jewelbox, funded by federal, state and local sources, involved tasks such as buffing the Tennessee pink marble flooring in the head house, restoring a Guastavino tile ceiling on the concourse, and replicating the original yellow paint, as bright as an egg yolk.
“They did a fantastic job, it’s beautiful,” said Gus Parpas, the owner of Christos. “There are a couple of spaces that could be used potentially for restaurant venues or some retail, but my sense is that’s not an easy sell.”
Longtime leasing challenge
Retail leasing in downtown St. Paul has been a difficult go over the years — it’s been tried at Town Square, Bandana Square, Galtier Plaza and the World Trade Center, as well as the long-troubled and now-shuttered Macy’s store.
“Retail is tough in both downtowns, Minneapolis and St. Paul, but it’s even worse in St. Paul,” said Deb Carlson, director of brokerage services for the Bloomington-based real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield/NorthMarq. “The specialization [of Union Depot] and the traffic patterns, it will certainly take some time.”
Currently, some 800,000 travelers traverse the station on an annual basis. Officials say that number will likely increase — particularly as ridership grows on the Green Line.
In September, more than 1 million rides were taken on the Green Line, the highest monthly ridership since service began in June. In terms of weekday service, the Union Depot stop ranks ninth out of 23 stations, with close to 1,600 daily boardings, according to Metro Transit. Average weekday ridership along the entire route in September was 35 percent higher than 2015 projections.
In addition, Amtrak and the Minnesota Department of Transportation are exploring adding an extra trip on the Empire Builder’s route.
“I would think that it would be hard for a retailer to open a business [at Union Station] that serves only two trains a day,” said Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari, though he noted that the Union Depot is preferable to the previous station on Transfer Road. The refurbished depot has proved to be a popular draw for public events, such as National Train Day in May, as well as a site for private weddings and galas for nonprofit organizations.
Free yoga classes are held twice weekly, and game nights every Wednesday. All told, about 85,000 people are expected to attend special events this year, according to Jean Krueger, Ramsey County’s real estate asset manager.
City officials think the popularity of the Union Depot will grow in tandem with the ongoing real estate boom of Lowertown, now a popular destination partly due to the St. Paul Farmers Market and the new St. Paul Saints ballpark, slated to open next year.
“We’d love to see a continuation of all the good things happening in Lowertown now,” said Jonathan Sage-Martinson, director of the city’s planning and economic development department.
Christos owner Parpas said he’s already noticed some encouraging changes. “Back in 1996, nobody wanted to be in that building. Nobody. It was a morgue.
“They brought it back to life; now it’s changing,” he said. “Now, it’s a public space.”