For $8.1 million, Ramsey County soon may be gaining greater control of a major piece of St. Paul's railroad history.

Next Tuesday, the Regional Rail Authority is scheduled to discuss the proposed purchase of the lobby, or head house, of downtown's Union Depot.

Purchase of the blocklong building facing 4th Street would come a year after the county agreed to pay $49.6 million for the depot's rear concourse and 9 acres of adjacent land.

The county envisions the Union Depot's return as a regional transportation hub -- this time with rail, buses, bicycles and taxis.

Plans to buy the head house had been the subject of two closed sessions involving county commissioners in recent weeks. But the proposed purchase was not made public until Thursday's release of Tuesday's county board agenda. According to a rail authority resolution, the proposed deal is to be finalized by May 31.

Commissioner Jim McDonough, the rail authority chairman, could not be reached to comment.

The head house purchase would involve two properties, the largest of which -- believed to be owned by JAS Apartments, Inc. -- now houses lofts and the Christos Union Depot Place restaurant.

Gus Parpas, owner of Christos, said Thursday that no one had approached him about the deal, and he had no plans to leave.

"We have a long-term lease," he said. "As far as we are concerned, we are there to stay."

Steve Frenz, president of JAS Apartments, could not be reached to comment.

Central Corridor looms

The Union Depot has long been a Lowertown landmark, and plans call for it to have continued prominence in the future.

The Central Corridor light-rail line is expected to have its final stop in front of the lobby, although the county would like to see the terminus at the rear of the depot.

A year ago, the county bought the rear concourse and nearby land from the U.S. Postal Service for $49.6 million. But that price could drop to $45.2 million if payments are made by Dec. 31, 2010.

An environmental assessment of the concourse is now underway.

Current plans call for the depot to be reopened as a transit hub in 2012.

The Union Depot was built between 1918 and 1923 on the site of an earlier train station that burned in 1915. During its heyday, the depot had nine railroads operating, with more than 20 million pieces of mail passing through the station annually. At its peak, 280 passenger trains rumbled through each day.

The last passenger train -- the Great Northern's Empire Builder -- left the station at 8:35 p.m. on April 30, 1971, bound for Seattle. • 612-673-4109 • 612-673-4148