Northfield’s 1888 train depot is on the move this week. The Save the Northfield Depot (STND) group has been working for five years to raise funds and navigate the political, environmental and legal obstacles to be able to save the historic building from destruction and move it a block north up the (rail) road.
Seeing ground broken and the building secured for the journey is an exciting milestone for historic preservation and a testament to the hard work of STND organization (you should read about the history of the Depot, the efforts to save it from destruction, train service in Northfield, and the details of the project on their very thorough website).
The Depot’s move, however, will also be the first shovels-in-the-ground redevelopment work on this centrally located, repeatedly planned and very difficult site.
The Q Block
The Depot is headed to what Northfield calls the “Q Block” on the west side of MN Trunk Highway 3 (TH3) named for the popular Quarterback Club restaurant and the forgotten Quizno’s sub shop (a space now occupied by El Triunfo–well worth the trip). The Canadian Pacific railroad (and high voltage power lines) bisects the block, the highway frontage makes the site visible but not easily accessible, the block has oddly-shaped parcels and multiple property owners (including the City of Northfield); the Q Block is not the easiest place to develop, in other words.
Downtown Northfield used to exist on both the east and west side of what is now TH3. In the late 1950’s, a swath of seventeen buildings was razed for the new trunk highway running from Saint Paul through Northfield to Faribault. In the late 1990s, after 40 years of highway strip development, the prospect of a new Target store further south on the highway, and planning the realignment of TH3 through downtown, Northfield leaders were thinking how to ensure the success of the historic downtown remaining on the east side of TH3 and make better use of underutilized parcels on the west side of the highway.
The Q Block was identified as a west side site in need of thoughtful redevelopment which made it the subject of repeated plans for the real estate and also critical as a location needing better access for people on bikes or on foot. Including these (but perhaps I’ve omitted a few):
- 1997 Ad Hoc report and 2005 Safe Crossing report: The 1997 citizen group and 2005 Safe Crossing task force both made recommendations for helping people walking or biking cross the highway by adding a traffic signal at the Q Block, but also be trying to recreate a local, human-scale streetscape along the highway through downtown to slow traffic and reinforce the sense of having entered downtown, rather than speeding through town. MnDOT’s actual realignment and reconstruction in of this highway segment did not robustly incorporate the suggestions.
- 1999 West of the River Guidelines were intended “to incorporate the west of the river area as part of the downtown” by encouraging zero-lot line development, two- to three-story buildings, and echoing the urban design of downtown. These guidelines were instrumental in rejecting a suburban-style Walgreen’s (which eventually built further south on the highway) on the Q Block and soliciting development proposals for what became the Crossings condo and retail site (worth its own post).
- 2006 EDA Q Block Master Plan set goals to redevelop “an outdated and mostly vacant retail area” by extending downtown’s scale and urban form across the highway to visually connect east and west and creating a “balance between pedestrian and automobile space along TH 3” and to “enhance pedestrian connections from the Q Block site to the Downtown by improving the TH 3 pedestrian crossings at 2nd and 3rd Streets.”
- 2006 Streetscape Framework Plan identified design elements in downtown Northfield and recommended a palette of public and private improvements for the downtown; the Quarterback Club was the first business to take advantage of cost sharing to add some of these features to its Q Block location.
- 2010 Northfield Roundtable Q Block Planning session (captured in their 2014 Framework Plan) noted: “The ‘Q Block’ could play a central role in creating an east-west axis for Northfield. Many have suggested it as a long-range location for a transportation hub that could provide a “hook” connecting emerging West Side redevelopment to the East Side historic downtown” and further adding ideas for a “greened” pedestrian crossing of the railroad as well as the highway.
High hopes for the Depot and the future
Despite all that planning interest and statements of intention, private tax-paying development did not occur. The proposal to move the Depot to the Q Block was met with both great interest as a way to stimulate long-sought development by some (including me), but significant skepticism by others because it was not “real” economic development. By 2012, the City Council (I was a Council member at the time) approved the Depot move with public support in the form of City-owned land to be transferred the Depot group and financial assistance from the Economic Development Authority. Yet, given the non-profit nature of the development, concerns remained the Depot was not the highest and best use of the property and might discourage additional future development.
But after all that planning, moving the Depot to the Q block is the first concrete step toward improving the block and carrying out the plans and more. The Depot project:
- Preserves a singular and historic building which is uniquely intended to be located next to the railroad rather than having the train and its noise be a problem to be mitigated in other kinds of development.
- Creates an additional reason to cross the highway on foot or bicycle and an opportunity to redesign the infrastructure, especially if it is used as a transit hub and/or passenger rail is restored. In 2015, in anticipation of the Depot’s move, a more pedestrian friendly crossing at Third Street was planned (but its construction has been delayed).
- Can leverage additional development. The development bet is moving the Depot, restoring the building and making it useful again, will spark additional – tax paying – development to fill out the block, carry downtown back across the highway, and use buildings to shape the streetscape, calm traffic and restore the local street function back to this strip of highway.
As the truck arrives to begin the Depot’s move just up the tracks to the Q Block, here’s a big round of applause for the Save the Northfield Depot organization for its hard work and persistence to preserve an historic building, lay the groundwork for more transit options, and break ground on redevelopment on the Q Block.
A version of this post appears on the author’s blog Small Town, Big Picture