Seven years after the Union Depot’s pricey renovation, Ramsey County leaders say the building’s $243 million restoration continues to be a wise investment, both for the future of regional transit and the preservation of St. Paul’s colorful past.
For the first time since its 2012 renovation and reopening, more than 1 million people visited the Depot last year — not just Amtrak passengers and light-rail commuters, but another 100,000 as well who shopped the holiday markets, perused art crawls and took free weekly yoga classes.
Also for the first time, the imposing Depot has all its commercial space leased out. Visitors will find a restaurant, coffeehouse, bike shop, security firm and an exhibit development group. Holiday events and a weekly indoor farmers market will start in October.
“The Union Depot is doing great. If you are here during the holidays, it’s been beyond my expectations,” said Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega.
The downtown St. Paul depot remains highly subsidized by Ramsey County. On many weekdays, there’s only a smattering of people in the massive waiting room restored to its 1920s-era splendor.
But business and city leaders said they support the county’s long-term vision of a thriving transit hub. The Depot represents planning for future growth and density that will require more mass transit options, said B Kyle, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce.
“The Union Depot is going to prove to be a good investment,” Kyle said. “It’s investing in an amazing building that couldn’t be built today.”
“The traffic we see at Union Depot now is not the traffic we are going to see in the coming years,” said Metro Transit spokesman Howie Padilla. “Union Depot is a great place for our riders and our community. We are happy with the building, and the future potential is there.”
Ortega acknowledged there’s room to grow and improve. The commissioner, who lives downtown and often dines at the Union Depot Bar and Grill, said he’d like to see more foot traffic in the building.
“It’s like when you cook a spaghetti sauce and you say it’s missing a little something,” he said.
Crystal Scott, owner of Java Express, a coffee shop at the Depot, said special events are keeping her in business — but just barely. She’d like to see more regular weekday customers stopping in for coffee, sandwiches and her new weekly Soul Food Fridays.
“You go to most train stations and it’s shoulder to shoulder. Where is everyone at?” Scott said.
More transit, more traffic
A big part of generating more traffic at the Depot depends on continuing efforts to develop more transit lines to connect there.
Amtrak’s Empire Builder stops at the Depot twice a day. The Depot is the final stop of the light-rail Green Line in St. Paul, and Metro Transit buses stop there. Long-distance bus lines including Greyhound, Megabus and Jefferson Lines also operate there.
Several additional transit lines are in the planning stages. The proposed bus rapid transit Rush Line, to run between Union Depot and White Bear Lake, is slated to start in 2026. Another bus rapid transit route, the Gold Line, is expected to link downtown St. Paul and Woodbury and stop in front of the Depot starting in 2024.
There’s a proposal for a streetcar line down W. 7th Street, called the Riverview, that would connect Union Depot with Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. There’s also talk of adding an Amtrak rail trip between St. Paul and Chicago.
William Lindeke, an urban geographer who sits on the St. Paul Planning Commission, said he’d really like to see expansion of Amtrak services at Union Depot.
“That would be huge for intercity regional rail and making Minneapolis-St. Paul better connected to Chicago,” he said.
Said Ortega: “The reality is we built this to be a transit hub and we’ve accomplished that.”
In 2005, Union Depot was downtown St. Paul’s largest pigeon coop, said Jean Krueger, Ramsey County’s property management director.
The county spent a dozen years acquiring the property from several owners and restoring it. The final cost included about $124 million in federal transit and stimulus funds, $105 million from the county rail authority and about $14 million in state bonding.
The 290,000-square-foot building is on the National Register of Historic Places, one of four county-owned properties on that list including the courthouse and Landmark Center, both in St. Paul, and a barn in Maplewood.
About $6 million of the Depot’s $8.2 million annual operating budget comes from rail authority property taxes. Utilities, security and maintenance account for the Depot’s largest expenses.
The biggest revenue stream at the Depot has come from parking: $1.3 million in revenue last year, generated by more than 1,500 parking spaces.
The holiday season draws the most visitors to the Depot with the annual tree lighting, European Christmas market and several Christmas train events. Some of those events will be expanded this year.
The goal has always been to keep the Depot a public building, which can limit opportunities to rent the space out for private events, Krueger said.
Still, the number of private event bookings has nearly quadrupled in the past five years, with 390 this year. The Depot has four private rooms for rent and can accommodate some events in its public areas.
Lindeke said that the events, especially the train-themed ones, draw crowds. He attended both the holiday Twinkle train and a special event about a steam engine.
“It was just packed in there. It was so exciting to see lots of people. It probably looked like it did back in the 1940s,” he said.
At a recent County Board workshop, commissioners made it clear they want historic buildings to be accessible to the public, not just venues for the elite.
“Our leaders have made the decision to reinvest in those buildings,” said Ramsey County spokesman John Siqveland. “Union Depot was ready for the wrecking ball, and citizens rose up and looked for a way to keep it active and vital.”