Angst is growing among residents, business owners and others over a proposal to put a light-rail train maintenance facility in a shuttered factory building in Lowertown.
It's not that light-rail service isn't welcome, they say. It's just that a repair facility wouldn't fit in with the artsy and residential vibe of the neighborhood on the east side of downtown St. Paul. Plus, they say, the plan was sprung on them without a chance for input.
Central Corridor planners say that there has been plenty of community notice and that the facility, which would be inside one of the former Diamond Products buildings east of the farmers market, would bring 150 jobs. It's enclosed, it saves money and work would be quiet, they say. Without it, they say, the line won't work.
There's enough angst that St. Paul City Council Member Dave Thune, who represents the area, will be sponsoring a resolution calling for the council to support the maintenance facility going elsewhere.
"For 20 years, it was anticipated that after manufacturing it [Diamond Products building] would be a residential and commercial part of Lowertown," he said. "This totally takes it out of the picture."
Thune's resolution is likely to ruffle some feathers. It's another dust-up along the line of a complicated project that involves numerous governments, agencies, institutions and neighborhoods.
Construction on the 11-mile line from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul is expected to begin in 2010 and wrap up in 2014. The current price tag is $913.9 million. The line is set to end on 4th Street, in front of the Union Depot. The maintenance facility would be two blocks east.
Central Corridor planners suggested the Diamond Products location in November after it became clear that the original site on Ramsey County land near the Mississippi River was too costly to decontaminate and would interfere with historic railroad sections.
Using the county site and building the track to get there would cost about $72 million, well above the original $47 million budget. Buying the Diamond Products building and accompanying construction would cost about $69 million.
The building, one of two on the 21-acre site, is about 178,000 square feet.
Nothing has been purchased yet, and the city and county would need to sign off on the location switch.
"It reuses a vacant building, and construction time will be less," said Laura Baenen, a spokeswoman for the Central Corridor project.
"How many people really want to live next to a maintenance shop?" asked Weiming Lu, former head of the Lowertown Development Corp. That group worked for more than two decades to transform empty buildings and parking lots into what Lowertown is today. The neighborhood is on the National Register of Historic Places.
"We need to consider other alternatives," Lu said.
Lu suggested industrial land near Hwy. 280 or the Amtrak depot off University Avenue. Planners have already ruled those sites out.
Ellen McPartlan, a resident helping to organize opposition, says there hasn't been enough discussion about how to deal with noise and vibrations or making the building look more historic. She thinks it would cost more than planners realize to make the building fit in.
Roger Nielsen, who owns Master Framers on 4th Street, said a maintenance facility in the building would cause his customers "an extreme hardship" because parking spots would disappear to make room for the track.
Plans call for all parking along 4th Street from the Union Depot to the building to go away. Planners are looking at ways to make up for the loss.
There's also concern that using the Diamond Products site would hamper efforts to better connect Lowertown to the Bruce Vento Sanctuary, which is east of the empty building, said Sarah Clark of the Lower Phalen Creek Project. Past studies have suggested various development ideas, from housing to a stadium, for the site.
Baenen pointed out that the building has been empty since 2005. "It has been vacant for a while, and this economy doesn't look real promising," she said.
Baenen said she invites those who are concerned about the noise to check out the Hiawatha light-rail line maintenance facility in Minneapolis. Interested folks can e-mail email@example.com or call 651-602-1645.
Chris Havens • 612-673-4148