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All Rails Converge at St. Paul’s Union Depot

A disused rail station finds new life as an urban multimodal hub

By Sara Fernández Cendón

On Feb. 26, President Barack Obama announced $600 million in transportation funding via the Department of Transportation’s competitive TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) program. The setting for the announcement was the Union Depot in St. Paul, Minn., recently renovated by local firm HGA and New York–based Beyer Blinder Belle (BBB). The location was ideal for the announcement, in part because federal stimulus funds (including a $35 million TIGER grant) paid for approximately half of the $243 million renovation, but also because the project represents a larger shift in focus in transportation-infrastructure spending.

“[T]his project represents what’s possible,” said the president during his speech.

Indeed, the Union Depot renovation is part of a broader turn towards investing in existing infrastructure in order to enhance and diversify public transportation options. In Colorado, SOM has transformed Denver’s Beaux-Arts Union Station into a multimodal transit hub featuring Amtrak service, commuter rail, light rail, buses, and taxis. The new station is set to open in July.

In 2010, a Bicycle Transit Center was built next to Washington, D.C.’s Union Station. D.C. is now is looking at an ambitious $7 billion plan to redevelop the station and its surrounding area. Los Angeles’ public transit agency recently released an ambitious master plan that would renovate the city’s Union Station and prepare it for linkages to high-speed rail. Boston is also currently exploring concepts for the expansion of its South Station, and the renderings that have been made public suggest a decidedly contemporary aesthetic approach for this historic building, a precedent set by the St. Paul project.

HGA’s Michael Bjornberg, FAIA, was there on the freezing February morning of the President’s visit. As the historic architect and project manager on the Union Depot renovation, Bjornberg has firsthand experience with this recommitment to transit. “Ramsey County feels strongly that mass transit is the way of the future, and that it stimulates cities,” he says about his client, the county in which St. Paul is located.

According to Bjornberg, the renovated depot, which recently achieved LEED Gold certification and was honored by AIA Minnesota with an Honor Award in the March/April 2014 issue of Architecture MN, has been booked for events nearly every weekend since it reopened in December 2012. More importantly, the station is home to Metro Transit buses and several intercity bus lines. Light-rail service connecting downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul is set to begin this summer, and later this year Amtrak is expected to relocate its Empire Builder line from the Midway Station it currently uses in the Twin Cities, which is located halfway between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul, to Union Depot.

The fact that the depot has become a multimodal facility, and not just a train station, is key and emblematic of the ways cities across the nation are reinvesting in public transit. Bjornberg recognizes that a train station running just several trains a day couldn’t possibly re-create the vitality of the original depot, which at its peak in the 1920s saw about 300 trains per day. Yet with a multi-transit urban hub, the opportunities multiply. The station and its surrounding trails are expected to attract people interested in riding bicycles, renting cars, taking city or regional buses, and, of course, using rail services.

In with the new

The depot is on the edge of Lowertown, a historic warehouse district that has benefited from a wave of investment in the past few decades. But in the middle of a resurgence of activity, the vacant depot was dragging things down. A 1924 Neo-Classical structure listed in the National Register of Historic Places and designed by Chicago architect Charles Frost, the depot consists of three parts: the head house, the waiting room, and the concourse. The head house had been closed since 1970. A post office, which until recently was located across the street from the station, had continued to use part of it as a loading dock. Aside from that—and the many pigeons that eventually took up residence in the cavernous space—activity in the building had been minimal since Amtrak service was interrupted in the 1970s.

The renovation took a building designed for a specific use—rail transport—and put that same use back into it. But going from a singular use to a multimodal facility required accommodations.

“It was important that there be no points of conflict between the various modes,” says Tim Mayasich, director of the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority. “We wanted to create a seamless flow of modal passengers throughout the facility.”

Several new entrances had to be created or reconfigured for multiple forms of transit.

The original design included a horseshoe driveway in front of the head house. The light-rail station now occupies that area, so now passengers must be dropped off at a new entrance building, designed by BBB, or at a drop-off point below the station. The new entrance building is a glass-and-steel structure of a decidedly industrial feel consistent with the original design. The glass, however, marks the elements as a contemporary addition, and brings a sense of transparency and orientation to the visitor’s experience. Michael Wetstone, AIA, a project designer at BBB says views of the city and the river from the elevated vantage point of these structures were designed to also create a sense of arrival. “It’s not just the monumental waiting room that greets travelers, but also grand views of the city itself,” he says.

The drop-off point below the historic building required the introduction of a grand stair and elevator in the head house. Because these elements were created within a critical historic space, the design by HGA was derived from existing stair details, but simplified slightly to differentiate them from the original.

In describing the stairway addition, Bjornberg acknowledges the perennial question surrounding historic renovation. When you intervene in a historic context, do you do it so no one can tell, or do you make the intervention obvious?

“Ultimately, what you want to do is still be able to read the original story,” he says. In order to accomplish this, the team researched the original structure and carefully considered every potential departure. For example, the project required the removal of some historic deck, the surface on which trains used to sit, by the access platforms. Because preserving the industrial character of the depot was a priority for the historic agencies, and because the deck contributed to the depot’s industrial feel, its removal was offset through a landscape design consistent with the original aesthetic: low vegetation, steel lighting elements, and small pocket parks.

Two forms of research for the renovation were performed. For research focused on restoring existing historic materials, the team had to determine which elements were part of the original design and which had been added later. Other research focused on historic precedents for the kind of utilitarian aesthetic demanded by the context and function of the project.

“Some of the new elements we added have the same form and function as they did before, but we used new materials to differentiate the old from the new,” says Bjornberg, referring specifically to the new bus and train platforms. Another modern addition follows the same approach. The Kellogg Boulevard entrance, for example, is a decidedly contemporary steel-framed structure with glass curtain walls.

“You can tell when you’re moving from a 1920s building into a new building,” says Mayasich. “It flows well and it feels seamless.”

Restoring the old

The building and tracks sit on top of a two-layer parking garage on the edge of the Mississippi River. Early on, the team realized many of the pillars in the garage had corroded over the years. According to Bjornberg, replacing all of them would have taken up the project’s entire budget. Instead, the team used X-ray technology to assess what had to be repaired.

On the interior, the design reintroduced the building’s original materials and colors. Bjornberg explains that the colors are a reflection of regional character: The gold symbolizes the wheat fields of Minnesota, and the red accents are reminiscent of the red iron ore found in the state.

When it came to restoring missing features, the focus remained on integrity. On the exterior, the team restored elements found in the original drawings, such as details at the skylights above the waiting room, the railing at the roof along the perimeter, and train-platform canopies. Yet, “if something is missing, and you don’t have original drawings,” Bjornberg says, “you don’t try to fake it.”

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Union Depot concourse, looking north. All images courtesy of Paul Crosby Photography.

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Union Depot waiting room, looking north.

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Amtrak train platform.

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Upper-level Kellogg Boulevard entry.

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Head house stair and elevator.

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Union Depot was designed by Charles Frost and built in 1924.

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Recent Related:

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Read AIA Minnesota’s Architecture MN March/April 2014 Honor Awards Issue

 

Back to AIArchitect July 25, 2014

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