By Sam Ding
In December 2012, after two years of renovation, the brand-new Union Depot in Downtown Saint Paul revealed itself. Situated in the Lowertown neighborhood, this train station has transformed into a multimodal transportation hub while serving the people of Saint Paul as a public space. It was a heavy investment— from both the federal and county-level government— totaling $243 million. Union Depot now includes transport services for Amtrak, intercity buses, local buses, and light rail transit. At the same time, it also hosts various shops, restaurants, workplaces, as well as private condominiums, all under the same roof. It is a publicly funded and privately managed space.
Union Depot did not begin its journey like this. The earliest building that functioned as a train station was completed in 1881. After the station burned down in 1915, a new building was completed in 1923. At its peak, there were 280 train departures and 20,000 passengers daily. Yet ridership continued to be in decline due to the development in automobile and airline industries. In 1963, Union Depot ended its train service, and not long after, businesses took over the building. The development would stagnate until 2005 when Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority (RCRRA) began the planning of Union Depot’s renovation. Buildings were reacquired, ramps were removed, everything was back on track. Advocates of this grand project see it as the premier multimodal hub of the region, and the county hopes to make Union Depot a unique spot that not only attracts travelers but also attracts visitors and locals.
Among all the positive visions, there were opposing voices. For example, in 2011, Steven Dornfeld, who is the former Director of the Met Council, argues that because there was still less demand for multimodal transportation in Saint Paul, it would take years for Union Depot to achieve its vision.
Fast forward to 10 years later, as I am standing in the vacant station in the middle of the day, I can’t help but think that Dornfeld was right. Admittedly there’s COVID, the pandemic that shut down the majority of travel, but as domestic travel revives after the cases dropped in May of 2021, I have yet to see a significant increase in the public use of Union Depot throughout my observation period. This sparked my curiosity— what makes Union Depot unattractive compared to other transport hubs or other public spaces? To begin with, I will walk through the background of Union Depot.
What is Union Depot?
The renovated Union Depot draws investments from several federal funds, including the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) and Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) Grant, as well as State bonds and levy dollars, totaling about $140 million. The RCRRA funded the remaining $103 million.
The structure that we call Union Depot is actually composed of several parts: the Head House, the Concourse, and the Waiting Room. The Head House is a lobby-like atrium that welcomes visitors and travelers; the concourse connects Head House to the Waiting Room; the Waiting Room hosts various modes of transportation.
Aside from its transportation functions, Union Depot is also a public space. It hosts private and public events and functions as a gathering place for the local community. Anyone can access the station, regardless of whether they have purchased a ticket. It is also connected to other buildings in Saint Paul via the St. Paul Skyway.
How Public is this space? Introducing the OMAI model
To measure a place’s publicness, which is a heavily debated topic in the realm of public space, our class implements the OMAI method, which is described in detail in another article. Each dimension of the four is rated on a scale from 1 to 4, with 1 being fully private and 4 being fully public. Referencing this scale, Union Depot has a rating of the following:
Ownership: 4. RCRRA, an arm of the Ramsey County government, purchased the land and the building for renovation. It legally owns the station, making this a completely publicly-owned space.
Management: 2. Union Depot is managed by Jones Lang LaSalle Inc. (JLL), a private real estate service company. Day-to-day maintenance is provided by private contractors, so is security. The Saint Paul Police also cover the precinct of the station. Management leases out the station to a variety of private events which may collide with demands for public space.
Accessibility: 3. The station is physically and easily accessible to all. Designers added elements to accommodate all members of the community, including the ADA-compliant doors, slanted walkways, escalators, and elevators. However, the station is not open at all times, as doors are locked from 10 PM to 6 AM.
Inclusiveness: 2. There is the Union Depot Code of Conduct, a set of restrictive policies regarding appropriate activities in the station. Hostile architecture designs echo the Codes in discouraging inappropriate usage of the facilities, including sleeping on benches.
As we can see, among the four dimensions of the OMAI model, Union Depot functions as a decent public space in terms of ownership and accessibility but falls short on areas of management and inclusiveness. In the following sections, we will dive deeper into the aspects that lead to this shortcoming.
What was the problem?
To address some of the concerns I found while observing the space in terms of Management and Inclusiveness, I will first talk about the designs in Union Depot. Then I will talk about the management’s role in determining Union Depot’s inclusiveness.
In terms of design, it is nice to see that there are a lot of historic artifacts that are intentionally kept and renovated to fit modern standards. This includes the neoclassical style exterior, the arched roof of the waiting room, the marbled materials of the interior, etc., all reflecting the time period of Union Depot’s initial completion. Also, I was relieved to observe facilities designed for the handicapped.
Yet, when the designers implemented these factors, they also took into consideration keeping the space appropriate for the public. The definition of the public is ambiguous because it does not include all, at least not those who are homeless. As a result, I was able to observe some hostile architecture that discourages lying down on the public benches and seats, which is a direct counteraction to the unhoused. Also, the station is moderately surveilled by cameras in the open area as well as hidden corners, which creates a sense of being watched.
Moreover, I observed that due to the constraints of the built structure, traffic flow was counterintuitively navigated. Although Union Depot is a multimodal transportation hub, its modes of transportation are scattered throughout the space: trains, buses, and light rail transit platforms are independent of each other and are spread far apart. In addition, the choice of words is puzzling to the general public. In conventional understanding, “Ground Transportation” encapsulates all modes of ground transportation, but in this case, it practically includes nothing because both local buses and LRT have their own platforms (see Figure 2 and Figure 8). For passengers disembarking from buses and transferring to LRT or other modes of transportation, this could be very confusing. During my observation, I have encountered several arriving passengers who had trouble navigating to their next mode of transportation.
Since Union Depot is a privately managed property, perhaps more decisions are made by the private sector rather than the public sector. Among them, there are good decisions, and there are not-so-good decisions.
To begin with, the management values the potential of Union Depot as a public space for all and strives to achieve that image by hosting a variety of public events, many of which were abruptly canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Since the state and city governments loosened policies on social gatherings, Union Depot is resuming regular public events. I was able to participate in/observe two of the activities – the annual Train Days and weekly yoga sessions. These activities carve out their specific areas for event use, but actively encourage participation from all.
In order to understand what a public event pre-COVID is like, I spoke with Lauryn, a yoga instructor who has been hosting weekly sessions in the Waiting Room for two years. She told me that quite often there would be bystanders to the sessions and sometimes they would join the sessions on the spot. Sometimes, when the event takes up the majority of the space in the Waiting Room, management uses retractable belt barriers to delineate the areas for event use. For example, on Train Days, the area in the middle of the space is reserved for event use, but all are welcome to join. Also, considering the influx of visitors, the management added more seating, including roundtables. These facilitate socialization between participants.
On the negative side, Union Depot has a Code of Conduct that specifically highlights the activities visitors cannot do inside the station, which is a clear indicator that the space is not inclusive of all members of the community. One of the codes forbids “occupancy of more than one seat”, which implies the discouragement of the homeless. Also, because of such limitations, many activities one can do in an outdoor setting are practically impossible in Union Depot, which makes it functions less like a proper public space and more like a space with a fixated functionality. This is proven by the fact that during the time of my observation, there is only a small portion of non-travelers visiting the station.
Yet, inclusiveness of public space is not only about how welcoming a place can be for people, but also when a place is welcoming for people. Is it inclusive 24/7, or just several hours a day? This would make a big difference. For Union Depot, we know that the rules posted discourage certain “inappropriate” usage as well as nighttime usage of the building. But there are more minor and implicit modifications the management at Union Depot does every day to make the building uninviting for the public at times when the public space becomes private. Since it was renovated, Union Depot has become a popular place for a variety of private gatherings. So what exactly happens at a private event?
The first set of modifications revolve around the seats, as management would rearrange them so that the public is discouraged from sitting. The benches inside Union Depot are not fixed to the ground but rather movable, so management can remove or place them. I was able to visit the Waiting Room at times when there is and is not a private event held. Juxtaposing the two occasions, I find that on a day when there is no private event scheduled, there would be more benches compared to a day with a private event (Figure 11). Benches closest to the entrance, which occupy the sections closest to the entrance, will be removed, so will the benches scattered in the middle of the Waiting Room. A worker told me that clients of the private events can request to keep or remove the first few rows. This tells me that the inclusiveness of Union Depot, at times when private events are held, is solely at the discretion of private parties.
Moreover, the management also rearranges the space of the Waiting Room. It is essentially a large indoor space with unobstructed views, yet at times when private events are held, a curtain fully separates the private event space and the remaining public space (see Figure 12). When the space is fully public, the placards indicating that seating is “reserved for ticketing passengers only” are visible but are far from the seats themselves. Because of the dissection of space, those placards become visually closer to the seats by the wall, creating a more eye-catching sign for non-travelers. This warning would be further reinforced by the regular patrols of security personnel. Generally, when no private events are held, the security person is more lenient on the seating policy and allows non-travelers to sit on the designated benches. However, when private events are held, non-travelers would be asked to leave. I have experienced encounters with the security person where she asked me and another person to not sit for more than 10 minutes due to relevant COVID policies.
What’s more upsetting about the decaying publicness during these private events is that there is a direct conflict between the demand for public space to be public and private. Union Depot prides itself on hosting a variety of private events, including corporate events, weddings, etc. In an email inquiry to Maurina Rondeau, who is the marketing & events coordinator at Union Depot, she told me that they are “booked every weekend this year”. According to the StreetLight data of my peers’ places of interest, almost all have a significantly larger visitor flow on weekends compared to weekdays. This means that the days when people are most likely to use the public space coincide with the demand for it to host private events. As a user of the space, whenever there are private events happening, it is easy for one to feel out of place. This is especially true for an indoor public space, as the central area is carved out for private purposes and the noises echo from the rooftop. Let’s not forget that visitors of the space don’t get to decide when space will be public—the management and those who pay to rent the space get to. This creates a dilemma for Union Depot—a space where management tried so hard to appeal to the public by being inclusive and welcoming, but at the same time still had to prioritize private interests.
What’s in store for Union Depot in the future years? The problem with Union Depot right now, as it seems, comes twofold: acceptance to modes of public transport and the station as a public space.
As multimodal transportation is becoming increasingly popular, cities around the world are implementing projects that bring intercity and intra-city transport under the same roof. Projects like this generally maximize efficiency and convenience. However, not all cities are capable of such demands to populate these projects. For Minneapolis-Saint Paul, public transit only takes up 2.5% of all trips made, whereas trips on personal vehicles take up nearly 84% (Figure 14). This could be a nationwide problem since American cities have some of the largest percentages of automobile trips, except a very few cities with excellent public transportation (i.e. New York City).
The overwhelming majority of automobile travel also extends to intercity travel. A study from 2011 shows that almost 90% of long-distance trips in the US are made by car, whereas 7% are made by air, 2% are made by bus, and less than 1% are made by trains. With such low demands on public transportation, it is hard to envision a positive outlook for Union Depot, unless the public sector takes initiatives to advocate transit use.
As a public space, Union Depot is also facing its challenges. With current uncertainties in the economy and people’s wavering acceptance of public transit, Union Depot is likely to continue the current method of revenue-making through leasing out the property for private events. As communities come back from the COVID-19 pandemic and public spaces are populated again, Union Depot may become a less preferred spot for communities nearby because the profitable private usage of the venue trumps over and undermines a more wide-range public demand. It would be at the discretion of both the RCRRA and the private management company to figure out the best way going forward.