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Post office proposes Eagan move

Relocation would clear path for downtown transit network

Pioneer Press

June 07, 2005 - The U.S. Postal Service is willing to vacate its towering downtown St. Paul post office to make room for a new transit hub at the old Union Depot across the street.

"We have made a determination that relocating our St. Paul mail processing operations to an expanded Eagan (bulk mail center) is a prudent course of action and is in the best interest of the Postal Service, as well as the St. Paul community," Deputy Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe wrote in a letter Monday to U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum.

Donahoe proposes selling the building to the city or some other public entity and putting a final decision before the postal agency's Board of Governors next year. The move to Dakota County potentially could be completed by 2009.

St. Paul area officials hailed the news, a sign that the 17-level post office, built in 1932, will no longer stand in the way of a plan to bring commuter, light-rail and high-speed rail connections to downtown St. Paul.

"This is great news," said Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega, who represents downtown St. Paul and leads the county's Regional Rail Authority. That body would likely take the lead in transit development in the city's Lowertown area.

St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly also hailed the news, calling it the most important development in Twin Cities transportation policy since the Legislature decided to keep the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport at its current site.

The move, which would result in the loss of about 1,400 downtown jobs, could effectively position St. Paul between Minneapolis and major transportation links, such as high-speed rail service to Chicago and Milwaukee and commuter rail service from North Branch along the Rush Line and from Hastings along the Red Rock corridor.

As it did when the Mississippi River opened for steamboat traffic in the 1850s, St. Paul's riverfront would serve as the gateway for surface transportation in and out of the Twin Cities.

"This is a huge decision for St. Paul and a very significant decision for our region," Kelly said.

He and mayoral candidate Chris Coleman said the move also would provide an unprecedented opportunity for downtown redevelopment. Kelly said he will direct St. Paul planning officials to conduct a feasibility study and prepare a bid for the existing postal building.

"It may well make very, very attractive housing, perhaps with some retail on the lower level," the mayor said.

Coleman suggested that some large-scale and retail elements of the proposed Bridges development on the city's West Side might be better located on the post office site. "They really don't do that much to help revitalize downtown," he said of current plans for the West Side.

Whatever happens to the post office itself, the most important move will be the relocation of a riverfront truck dock on the 12-acre post office site. More than 400 tractor-trailers a day move in and out of Lowertown, directly beneath the vacant Union Depot passenger concourse, where trains ran until 1971. Tracks can't be restored until the trucks are redirected.

"We are ready to buy the concourse, and we may even consider buying the post office itself," Ortega said. "We could relocate some of the people from the West Building and redevelop that entire area."

Other local officials have expressed some apprehension about the impact of acquiring that truck traffic. The city of Arden Hills, for example, scotched a post office relocation proposed in 2003 for the former Army ammunition plant there.

In Eagan, the existing postal facility sits on 75 acres in a break in Denmark Avenue just east of Interstate 35E and south of Lone Oak Road. City officials have expressed a desire to connect the local road between Sam's Club and Home Depot, as well as a bridge over the freeway to accommodate traffic.

"The transportation needs in this are foremost," city administrator Tom Hedges said. "We need to have adequate improvements so we don't have traffic compromised at our intersections. It's hard for a local government to tell the federal government what to do, but we hope our needs will be taken seriously and that our congressional delegation will intervene on our behalf."

Eagan is excited about the job gains, he said. "These are good jobs that pay well... it's good for the retail business and other support services."

Minnesota's congressional delegation weighed in, too, with Republican Sen. Norm Coleman calling the news "a win for both cities."

McCollum, a D emocrat, who represents the Fourth District, called the development exciting and said, "It gives the East Metro and St. Paul a chance to move forward with light rail and riverfront development."

Republican U.S. Rep. John Kline, who represents the Sixth District, said he was committed to making sure the post office relocation would be an "overall gain" for Eagan.

Still, some questions remain:

• A local consultant projected the cost of expanding the existing bulk mail center in Eagan would run more than $100 million. The postal service is in the midst of a multi-year "transformation plan," which is seeking operational efficiencies, such as moving mail handling out of the six-story processing facility in St. Paul and into a one-level operation in Eagan, but no money has yet been identified for the relocation.

• The "transportation hub" in downtown St. Paul involves $800 million for the light-rail line alone, to say nothing of commuter or high-speed rail development. The Legislature has committed $5.25 million to plan the Central Corridor light- rail project so far.

• There may be less-visible downsides: The reconfiguration of the St. Paul facility in Eagan may mean staffing cuts for the Postal Service overall as the Twin Cites operation becomes more efficient. Downtown St. Paul would lose about 1,400 postal jobs, according to officials' 2003 estimate. (Ortega said the service intends to keep its downtown presence.) Eagan officials cited a gain of only 1,100 jobs in a statement Monday.

• The depot isn't what it used to be: Its front section is already being prepared for a mixed-use redevelopment, including loft housing. Public access to the concourse will have to be accommodated on the ground-floor level. Tracks will dead-end under the depot concourse, which could limit traffic growth unless the post office building is demolished. Los Angeles is spending more than $160 million to make its former "stub-end" depot a "pull-through" facility for trains.

Charles Homans and Meggen Lindsay contributed to this report. Tim Nelson can be reached at tnelson@pioneer or 651-292-1159.


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