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St. Paul Union Depot and its Mississippi River (Dis)connections by Derek Holmer

January 30, 2013Joanne RichardsonGuest PostsComments Off on St. Paul Union Depot and its Mississippi River (Dis)connections by Derek Holmer

Recently, River Talk gave some space to some of the most interesting new voices we’ve heard recently.  These five young people were all students in the Honors Seminar last fall, “Living Sustainably with the Mississippi River.” We hope you agree that students like these are promising lights for the future of sustainable rivers. See the rest of the student posts on our For Students page.

St. Paul Union Depot’s restored concourse.

St. Paul has always been a river city. Its geography made it the perfect location for a steamboat landing, with its lower landing quickly becoming one of the busiest in the country (NPS). As railroads grew into the primary source of travel in the US, St. Paul grew into a railroad hub for the upper Midwest. In 1923, a shiny new depot opened just above the lower landing that cemented St. Paul’s place as a regional transit hub. However, construction of the station included elevating the tracks out of the reach of flood waters, thus severely limiting Lowertown’s physical connection to the river to a few underpass
es. Just this year, the depot reopened after a $243 million restoration (Minneapolis Star-Tribune), bringing the relic back her 1920’s beauty, but updating her in prep for becoming a 21st century transit hub. Soon, Union Depot will be the terminus of the Central Corridor light rail line, the cities’ Amtrak station, the end of a proposed high-speed train connecting to Chicago and beyond, as well as a center for bus transit in the region. Couple this with the vibrant Lowertown neighborhood and the new Saint’s ballpark expected to open in 2015 (Pioneer Press), and Union Depot will be the center of activity on the east side of downtown St. Paul. This provides an excellent opportunity for planners to reconnect St. Paul’s riverfront with Lowertown.

The proximity of Union Depot (the tan arched building in the center) and Lambert’s Landing. The elevated tracks lie between the street and the station.Lambert’s Landing, the site of St. Paul’s busy lower landing, sits quietly between the depot and the river. Currently, there is a fairly standard park along the bank. A running trail here, some trees there, covered in brown sod on pack ground; the most it inspired from me was a yawn. However, the development potential of the park itself is a topic for another blog post. The important feature of the park is the presence of the depot just beyond. The rear of the depot looks down upon the site, almost mocking it, reminding the landing of how railroads overtook travel by steamboat. While this visual connection is strong, there is absolutely no physical connection. To get from the station—and subsequently Lowertown—to the river, a person has to walk down Sibley Street and under a sketchy underpass. Then, they have to play frogger on a four lane road with freight traffic. Not fun. But the plan of the building provides the solution. While the head house (the main structure) is two blocks from the river the concourse actually bridges Kellogg Blvd and stops 200 feet from the water. This is where a connection to the park could be constructed.

With inspiration from the redevelopment at Kansas City’s Union Station, a pedestrian bridge can be constructed; one that connects the depot to the park across the tracks and Warner Road. This would be an opportunity to create an architecturally significant monument (one that architecture nerds like me geek out about) to match the monumentality of the depot. It would reestablish the city’s riverfront as a gateway to St. Paul, just as the station has become. It would also make the park a feature destination within the rejuvenated Lowertown neighborhood. With potential commuters and travelers from across the metro and even as far away as Chicago walking through the depot, they can be drawn to the river. A monumental station connected to a monumental river by a monumental bridge. It only seems appropriate.

So what can you do? Simple. Visit the depot. Try to get to Lambert’s Landing. Is it easy? If the answer is no, then there is an obvious problem. Problems need solutions, so a bridge would be just that. Also, while you are down there, visit restaurants, shop in local stores, and walk along the river and remember, everything in the cities connects to the river in some way, even Union Depot and its (dis)connection.

Guest post by Derek Holmer.


“Lambert’s Landing.” National Park Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. 6 December 2012.

Duchschere, Kevin. “A new day is coming for St. Paul’s Union Depot.” Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 December 2012.

Melo, Frederick. “St. Paul: With $25M in state funding, Saints ballpark in Lowertown is a go.” St. Paul Pioneer Press. 13 September 2012

“Freight House Pedestrian Bridge.” BNIM. BNIM. 6 December 2012.

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