This post will be unpopular.

I went with my family to an event for National Train Day (as suggested by a recent post by Julie). We drove to St. Paul since the Green Line is not yet open. Driving is break-even with paying for 3 fares on the bus round-trip, and my once non-driving, Amtrak-riding wife wouldn’t take the bus anyway. Free parking in St. Paul is a little tricky to find on Saturdays now, but fortunately, the new Saints Stadium construction has not started and the free Farmer’s Market parking at the old Gillette plant is still open, so we parked there and walked a few blocks through the early season market, passing mostly preserves and garden plants, to the station.


We entered the dimly authentically-lit Saint Paul Union Depot (SPUD), a large but not magnificent space. A train station with no trains. The restoration is nice, and I am sure a better space than the restorers found it in, but the original structure was really nothing special at all. Having only been to the front of the station previously (the acoustically challenged headhouse), I was actually disappointed at the rest of it given how much fuss and money have been expended on the project.

The money spent on the restoration was $243 million, one-fourth of the cost of an LRT line serving 100 to 200 times as many people per day? Okay, it’s still better than a Vikings Stadium, but is that really the bar for public investment? We should always ask what else ‘we can get for that money’ given that our wants outstrip our wallets.

The building was perhaps constructed at the nadir of American railway architecture, missing both the Belle Epoque ornamentation of the 19th century, and the Art Deco of just a few years later. Instead going for the stern and spartan neoclassical style reflecting, if not appealing to, the sensibilities of pragmatic upper Midwesterners.

It is “considered to be one of the great architectural achievements in the city” sayeth Wikipedia. That does not speak well of the city, and I believe a false claim. Off the top of my head, I would rate the Cathedral, the Capitol, and the Science Museum significantly higher on the list. Frankly among transportation structures, I would rank Bandana Square higher on the list. And this is all leaving aside what has been destroyed. It is nicer than the Midway Amtrak station it will eventually replace.

As we entered, to our left some early twenty-something lady DJs for the Disney radio channel (apparently Disney has a radio channel) were trying to encourage some youthful dancing to popular music. They were getting no custom. Christo’s restaurant was also mostly empty, though one of the waiters was dancing with the DJs.

There was an Amtrak swag area farther in, with a longish line for stuff. The entire St. Paul rail fan apparatus was in place: from Choo Choo Bob’s, to the Twin Cities Model Railroad Museum, to the Minnesota Transportation Museum, to the NLX booth (with a brochure promising “profits” from their line), to the rail passenger association with a lot of lines drawn on a map of Minnesota. Red Rock’s booth was not manned (just like their trains).


The big attraction was the bouncy house and the bouncy slide. The Slide was manned by a security guard, to make sure the kids didn’t pass each other climbing up the inflatable slide, which could be hazardous.

At the end of the Depot was a sign advocating free train rides. We went downstairs. They were fake trains. Okay, to the extent that one motorized vehicle pulling a trailer is a “train”, they were trains, but they were untracked, not steam, diesel, or electric powered, small, and ran on the platform, not the rail. They couldn’t even get the transportation museum to operate a short-line run of one of their tour trains at the Jackson Street Roundhouse. The small train was nevertheless full, carrying a load of about 10.


Needless to say, the children were displeased. I had to promise a real train ride soon. Blue Line here we come.

I can’t help but think the cavernous space could be better used for almost anything besides a train station serving about 175 boarding passengers a day. (Yes of course more IF they add service.)

If we want to steal ideas from other cities, some thoughts for adaptive reuse for this future pale proboscidea include: An Exploratorium, an aquarium, a planetarium, an indoor market. I am sure there are others.

14 thoughts on “SPUD

  1. Julie

    I think it would be a nice home for the winter market in St.Paul, the once a month off-season farmer’s market, much as the Mill City Market uses the Mill City Museum atrium in winter months.

    The firing up of the 261 was lovely, albeit cold and windy.

  2. Scott Berger

    “The building was perhaps constructed at the nadir of American railway architecture” – I’m sorry but, I’m not sure you really thought this through, as later in the same article you even reference the current Midway Station (“It is nicer than the Midway Amtrak station it will eventually replace.”) To say this is a lackluster building it totally out of context for our city. It’s perhaps from a utilitarian period from a great architectural age, but that doesn’t mean it’s bland and/or ugly as you so audaciously seem to be implying through your thinly-veiled language.

    243 million dollars is a lot. Nice things cost a lot. Much of that cost involved structural improvements in and around the basement level. You were right about one thing, though: I do, indeed, find this post quite unpopular. The funding used for the renovations was part of a federally-funded transportation and historic building fund, I believe. Old buildings are expensive. Oh, and by the way, try riding the Amtrak sometime. The other depots it stops at? If you ignore the markets that are clearly hubs, like DC, Chicago, etc. then you could open your eyes and see that this SPUD will be head and shoulders about other cities of reasonable sizes’ depots or stations.

    Negativity might get clicks and eyeballs, but I’m sorry your post just comes off as regressive and ignorant – something I am not used to from this site.

  3. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Yeah, this line also struck me as a massive understatement: “It is nicer than the Midway Amtrak station it will eventually replace.”

    I think its nicer than most US train stations. A bit nicer than Portland, New Haven (old stations I’ve been to). Not as nice as LA or DC or Boston.

    Obviously massively nicer than modern train stations (the one in Chicago they actually use, Penn Station, anything built in the 60s e.g. St Louis, Savannah, St Paul-Midway).

    Main problem is lack of trains. (Long story that.) Another gripe I have w/ SPUD is that I wish they could have used a bit of that (earmarked) money to connect to the river.

  4. cl

    I couldn’t agree more that the lack of trains currently designated for the Depot is dissapointing. However, I believe that reflects the unfortunate political economy currently in the metro. That we need to let Hennepin county get 80+% of transit development. It is a post-war super county- they ARE GOING TO develop a system for Eden Prairie, Lake Mtka, Malls ( of course- “mall county”). While inner city neighborhoods like Highland/Mac Grove, Eastside, and several of the mpls neighborhoods (that don’t have any super county arteries i.e. Hiawatha, Olsen Memorial, 394, etc) get nothing. That said, I don’t think it’s Saint Paul U.D.’s fault that we seem to break our necks reinforcing un-even geographic development at the state level. I think it’s a remarkable project that underscores everything we should be investing in regarding transit ( multi-modal hubs), preservation ( new paint and SAME USE AS INITIALLY INTENDED), and site ( already tucked nicely into a 19th century neighborhood that was T.O.D. already ). That said I could see the riverview corridor and the gateway corridor eventually coming to fruition which would certainly help the traffic levels. And if we don’t see those lines, someone is going have to explain to me why any of the other counties in the transit tax zone other than Hennepin participate.

  5. cl

    Well Bill it sure will be fun talking about all the new development around the West metro RAIL lines then. I wouldn’t tie up money in a BRT system if I was in charge. It’s really an unfortunate scenario for those whom care about East Metro development. Really, really too bad in my opinion

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      i think the BRT option looked OK for gateway. the Riverview is more of a rapid bus concept from Met Council, which doesn’t preclude a streetcar there too.

      LRT is difficult on the East Metro b/c there is a real lack of population density. commuter rail is difficult too!

      yeah, its a long road to having more trains in that SPUD station w/out the better intercity rail links to / through Wisconsin on the table.

  6. cl

    Ramsey County has a significantly greater density per sq mile than Hennepin. Yes Hennepin is larger ( 2.5-3 times larger in terms of sq miles roughly ), but the land use patterns in Hennepin county are exactly what a train system should try to “fix”. Other than the Hiawatha that goes to the airport (smart place to have a train go to) in Bloomington which has a decent population- we’re talking about terminating in Eden Prairie, Big Lake, Brooklyn Park (Center??). All these fine towns deserve rail service??? People generally move to these places in order to NOT be in an urban setting. I just fear that we’re going to end up with a Hennepin county train system- paid for by Ramsey, Dakota, Washington, and Anoka counties that will reinforce sprawling land use. I’ve worked in Eden Prairie for a few years and trust me the only thing a significant number of these people like about “urban” anything is the strong economy. Eden Prairie folks keep electing classic anti-urban (transit) representatives, yet because United Health wants to locate tons of jobs on the urban fringe they end up getting a train. I mean at least the 3M headquarters is across the street from St. Paul with regards to the Gateway line. Anyhow, if I were in charge regarding planning for the East metro I’d politely refuse money for BRT and start building out a comprehensive streetcar system- These investments are really about future development and BRT would bring 0 in that dept compared to LRT/Street cars. Enough rambling from me, thanks for the platform everyone at Streets MN. As an “armchair urbanist” I enjoy what you’all do.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      I agree w/ most of what you’re saying there, esp about streetcars. The Gateway BRT study I’ve looked at seemed pretty decent to me, would be a dedicated route out to the 3M HQ and into Woodbury. You’d be able to get there in 10-20 mins fm downtown. I think it might generate development. I’d just keep an open mind about it. Other than that, though, probbly the best LRT potential is Robert street, but ugh, I hate Robert Street.

      Really, though, I want to see streetcars on Rice, W and E 7th, & maybe a few others w/ potential too.

  7. cl

    I live in a building in Lowertown with many 3M’ers, including some who are active in local/urban issues. I’ve spoken with them about this BRT development and this is what I came away with- First they said the vast majority of 3M employee’s are living in Woodbury ( not interested in urban lifestyles ) The rest are in the dwtn’s ( are interested in urban lifestyles i guess) They guessed alot of them would ride a train at least a few times a week (if there were a 3M campus/Sunray stop, none were interested in the bus. Very, very informal sample, but the train is good/ bus is not good mentality is so strong I ‘d question the wisdom in spending the money on busses at all. Regarding street cars I feel the most important thing to do is have a connected SYSTEM, not just a line here or there. Obviously we’d need an downtown stretch that could get someone from Lowertown to Uppertown. Then yes E 7TH and W7th extending out from downtown. Perhaps we could convince either Grand or Selby ( dream scenario is bringing back the tunnel to Selby- i know keep dreaming), Rice, Payne, and if you cannot get Grand or Selby on board then look to St. Clair, Randolph. Some combination of these lines could exist as a very legible network that actually get’s city dwellers to a multitude of places they need to go. And thanks to the fact St. Paul hasn’t changed that much since we had streetcars this 5-7 line system would cover a decent percentage of the distinct neighborhoods within St. Paul ( The “old city” anyhow). Oh shoot, the West side- almost forgot. I know they want LRT for Robert ( but unless they get it over to Eagan I’m not sure the numbers will be there, and frankly I think Robert is too wide for streetcars) I’d prefer something down Ceasar Chavez. But there you go, that would be a streetcar system that would do wonders for St. Paul- All we need now is someone to go to the State governmenmt and (as long as they have a ten digit calculator) show them the difference between state investment Ramsey vs Hennepin, maybe threaten to join WI, hope Edina doesn’t “need” poodle buffers on every street corner, and bam we get to be a city too. And commuter rail to Rochester- It’s literally a straight shot w/ existing right of way right down 52- There are several Mayo employee’s in my Lowertown building as well as it’s not so bad a commute if you skip the Lafayette Bridge. I just hope they don’t need podle buffers in Edina

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      i also dream about the selby tunnel as a crucial bike/walk/streetcar connection b/w downtown and up on the hill.

      let’s do it! rochester is a good idea too.

  8. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Incidentally, I spend a lot of time down at the SPUD in the waiting room “working”, and about 50% of the activity here is just employees moving around furniture in the waiting room. (Literally rearranging deck chairs.)

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