Union Depot, Public Space Petri Dish, Still Waiting on Actual Trains

[Obama speaking at the SPUD in 2014.]
At this very moment, Vice-President Joe Biden is in downtown Saint Paul to tout the long-term effects of President Obama’s 2009 stimulus and infrastructure spending.

Fittingly, he’s appearing at the Saint Paul Union Depot, the 1920s train station that was remodeled as part of the stimulus package, receiving over $200M of Federal money for a thorough and gorgeous remodeling. The Union Depot, or SPUD, has been the site of a bunch of similar political events, from Obama’s 2014 appearance to the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation dinner that same year. Like a lot of downtown Saint Paul, it makes for a picturesque, if misleading, urban backdrop.

Because there’s only one problem: the Saint Paul Union Depot is a train station without any trains.

To this day there’s one train in each direction that actually stops at the depot, and there’s little hope of that changing any time soon. When Obama came into office, he introduced an ambitions plan for national network of “high-speed rail” that would, it was hoped, finally start bringing the US passenger rail network into the 19th century.

Because trains make such easy scapegoats, building inter-city rail is one of the most difficult of the political Herculean feats. The election of Scott Walker in neighboring Wisconsin almost single-handedly derailed plans to bring more trains to Saint Paul, and he's still thriving despite falling flat on his face in the presidential race.

Other transit or rail projects that might connect to the SPUD aren't faring much better. Not much is gonna be changing anytime soon.

So despite all appearances, the SPUD isn’t much of a train station. In fact, I'd make you a bet that one of the most frequently used transit vehicles there is the Mystic Lake Casino bus, which is free, by the way, though I am told that visiting casinos might impose hidden costs. (I am half-kidding; Jefferson Lines’ buses actually make good use of the station, though they are also not trains.)

So if the SPUD isn’t a train station, what is it?

Here are a few answers, and a few ideas.

[Most of the time the $250M SPUD is really, really empty.]

1. A Public Space / Refuge from the Cold

[One of the few places Downtown open at to the public at 5am.]
It turns out, that the massive polished marble spaces of the SPUD have become something of a public space experiment lab, filled with art, a variety of kiosks, and a whole bunch of moveable furniture that are constantly moving around the massive rooms like Tetris blocks, arranging and re-arranging themselves into constellations that open up and close down the surrounding spaces like blooming flowers.

Here’s an example. The other night, just this week, I stopped by SPUD to use the bathroom. For some reason, there was as new spatial arrangement. Half the waiting room furniture had been moved into the “hallway” area between the entry way and the main waiting room. And just about every bench was occupied.

Meanwhile, the rest of the movable furniture, instead of being clustered together (as per usual) had been separated almost equidistantly through the cavernous space. And just like the hallway benches, almost every seat in the room was occupied. And almost every occupant was a person of color.

Apart from the fact that it's literally someone's job to re-arrange the deckchairs in this massive room, it was interesting to see the relationship between space, furniture, and social relationships play out before you. It offered quite a change from the usual empty room.

(It’s also worth noting that SPUD is one of those places that the “mallwalkers” seem to like. During the workday you get all kinds of office types emerging from the skyways to do laps around the massive marble floors of the waiting room.)

[Hallway benches occupied on a February night.]

[Furniture spread to maximize distance.]

2. A Public Art Gallery

[A lot of lite brite.]
The SPUD is full of public art, including the largest lite-brite display in the world, a cool “radio” step kiosk in the far corner, some awesome ceiling installations, and a kiosk tribute to the Avidors (who live upstairs).

There’s also a healthy dose of place-making in the SPUD, including the ever-popular acoustic ping pong table.

I think there’s room for more, most especially in the still-vacant outdoor “driveway” space between the SPUD steps and the light rail station. It’s sort of fascinating to watch these pieces attract or be ignored by different audiences at different times. This is what public art is supposed to look like.

[Ray King's "twin waves" sculpture.]
[Daily tous les jours' AIR installation.]

3. An Event Space
Lots of events happen here, and for the most part it works out just fine, though when the once-a-day Amtrak train actually does arrive (often belatedly) it can be amusing to watch the actual (sleepy, smelly) train passengers bewilderingly interact with a wedding or corporate shindig or what-have-you.

But anyway, it's a nice place for a banquet or a massive all-night art festival.

[Set up for a banquet.]

[Northern Spark festival.]

So that's OK, but it still seems like you're not getting all your "bang for the buck" with a quarter-billion. So what else could it be?

1. A River Connection

For one thing, it could be a connection to the riverfront. The city has ambitious plans to build a “river balcony” that would connect Lowertown and downtown to the river along an elevated walkway path that would enter seamlessly into the depot. Saint Paul has huge problems connecting to the river, which offers so much potential, thanks mostly to the (largely unnecessary) half-assed freeway running alongside the waterfront.

The Depot is the only building that bridges the train tracks, and if done carefully, could connect downtown to the river and activate the SPUD space at the same time. Optimistically, this could happen quite soon, if some funding is put together.

[Plans have changed since this model was built; the balcony would likely enter the side of the SPUD.]

2. A bike shop

Well over five years after it was supposed to happen, this is actually happening. See the recent article in the PiPress:

The Lowertown Bike Shop has signed a 10-year lease for both the Depot’s large basement space, as well a retail space on the Depot’s main floor. The shop likely will open at the new location in late April.
The Depot’s space is three times larger than the bike shop’s current space in the Jax Building across the street at 253 Fourth Street East.
“Being part of a transportation hub allows people to find us a lot easier,” said Crystal Sursely, operations manager for the non-profit shop. “We are beyond capacity with storage. It will let us carry a lot more and branch out into apparel, which is big.”
[Bike mechanics forced to pretend they're excited.]

3. An Actual Train Station

Maybe someday if we get the second daily Amtrak train, Scott Walker retires, funding for commuter rail plans materialize, or some other act of political divine intervention, this will be a real train station with more than one train a day.

At any rate, VP Biden, himself a big fan of Amtrak, might be stretching the truth a bit today when he talks about the successful transformation of the depot into a train station. I’m sure there were better ways to spend $240M on Twin Cities' transportation than fixing up this building.

But an earmark is an earmark, and it’s an amazing building, a priceless legacy that will anchor Saint Paul’s "railroad future" (whatever that means) for generations. The hard work is still ahead of us, but fixing up and rehabbing the SPUD was never going to get any cheaper, and these days it’s interesting to watch it evolve into a vital downtown public space.

In the mean time, the juxtaposition of refuge for the city's poorest people, transit station, restaurant, exercise room for office workers, and stage for political events makes for some fascinating public space people watching.  Don't forget to try the ping pong.

[I don't follow instructions well.]

[Empty benches, polished floor.]

[Train station, shmainstation. This is a great ping-pong table.]

1 comment:

Krish Banzet said...

I still can't get over this great place I recently visited! This isn't only a good place. It is also one of the best around here. There isn't a listing of the unique offerings, although there should be! These Chicago event venues were magnificent!