Every month it seems to host a new event: a craft fair, a bake sale or a beer festival. Every week yogis stop by to stretch below the vaulted ceiling in its waiting room. And every 10 minutes, a Green Line train pulls up, unloading passengers at its doorstep.
Three years after the Union Depot’s $243 million transformation — one that Vice President Joe Biden will mark Thursday on a stop in St. Paul — use of the building in Lowertown is picking up steam.
But community members and local officials said transit services and use need to grow for the massive investment to truly pay off. “Has it met all of our aspirations? Probably not. It would be great to see even more traffic there and it can be a little quiet,” said Matt Kramer, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce. “But as a catalyst for Lowertown, and for that matter, for St. Paul, it has exceeded expectations. I’m convinced that we would not have the same development in downtown St. Paul … if there was a giant, hulking empty building there.”
The neoclassical depot was built in the 1920s and remained St. Paul’s entry point for passenger trains until 1971, when it fell into disuse.
It came back to life in 2012 after a $124.3 million injection of federal transit and stimulus money, with about $105 million from the Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority. The state chipped in $13.7 million.
Biden’s visit comes two years after President Obama stood in the depot’s waiting room and lauded such local and federal partnerships.
On Wednesday afternoon, that waiting room was quiet. A handful of people sat on benches. Oversized versions of chess and Connect Four were laid out for an all-day “Games Galore” event that, at least around 1 p.m., no one was attending.
“This is a massive space,” said Tim Mayasich, director of the rail authority. So he isn’t too concerned when people comment that it feels quiet.
Even when the station was at its operating peak in the early 1900s, with about 20,000 passengers and 282 trains moving through every day, photos show the waiting room looking rather empty, Mayasich said.
Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega called the building the “living room of St. Paul” — a living room that he said would get more lively in the next decade, as more transit lines and amenities are added.
The latest addition came Tuesday, when officials signed a contract with the Lowertown Bike Shop. The bicycle store and repair shop is expected to open at the depot in May.
The depot includes housing and Christos Greek Restaurant, but residents have asked for all-day food options, including a place to grab coffee, which Ortega said is being considered.
Kari St. Claire bought a loft in the depot in 2009. At that point, Lowertown had not yet landed on the cultural map, said St. Claire, who now rents out the space and lives in Stillwater. She has remained involved in the community, though, and founded the nonprofit Lowertown Landing, which supports growth in the neighborhood.
“I would say, ‘Oh, I live in Lowertown.’ And people were like, ‘What’s Lowertown?’ ” she said.
Then the depot reopened to transit. “That was kind of the biggest piece of kind of putting us on the map,” she said.
Mayor Chris Coleman said the Union Depot has been a piece of the downtown revitalization puzzle, along with light rail, private investment in bars and restaurants, and the St. Paul Saints’ new CHS Field. That mix has spurred more growth, he said, including the new Custom House apartments next door.
“Would the Custom House be converted into housing if there was a half-empty, decaying railroad building sitting next door?” Coleman said. “The answer is: probably not.”
Coleman and other officials stressed that the $243 million spent on Union Depot was a long-term investment and that some results may not be seen for years.
When St. Claire reflects on the money that went into redoing the building, she said it would be worth it only if transit services were to grow.
On an average weekday last year, there were 1,566 light-rail boardings at the Union Depot station, according to Metropolitan Council data. Of the 23 stations along the Green Line, it had the ninth-highest number of boardings, the data show.
In addition to the Green Line, the depot serves nine Metro Transit bus routes. The average number of daily boardings on those lines has increased from 156 in 2012 to 295 at the station, according to the Met Council.
Jefferson Lines, Minnesota Valley Transit Authority buses, the Megabus and Amtrak trains also stop at the depot. A second daily Amtrak train from St. Paul to Chicago is being studied, Ortega said.
St. Claire wants to see high-speed rail to Rochester, where she works as a nurse, and south to Chicago. Ortega is optimistic that these routes, too, will come — eventually.
Kramer acknowledged that there is “room to grow” in the depot’s role as a transit hub.
Yet transit lines planned in the east-metro area — including the Gateway Corridor to Woodbury, the Riverview Corridor to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, the Rush Line Corridor to Hinckley, Minn., and the Red Rock Corridor to Hastings — have one thing in common, Kramer said.
“Everybody knows where they terminate: Union Depot,” he said.