A vacant remnant of Northeast’s railroad past is perhaps closer than ever to becoming part of an economic engine for the community again.
City officials and neighborhood leaders said at a meeting Sept. 24 that they’re optimistic about the odds for finding a new use for the Shoreham Yards Roundhouse.
The red brick semicircular structure was once a locomotive repair and maintenance shop for a railroad yard that employed more than 1,000 workers.
Almost a decade after the city blocked its demolition, it’s now realistic to believe restoration work might begin within a couple years, said Council Member Paul Ostrow. The possible reuses include a job-creating industrial or commercial hub.
“I think there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Ostrow said.
An architect hired by the city to help assess the property warned, however, that the clock is ticking for the crumbling roundhouse.
“It’s important to move quickly because of how fast these buildings deteriorate, especially after there’s a hole in the roof,” said Charles Liddy, Jr., a principal with Miller Dunwiddie of Minneapolis.
The official purpose of last month’s meeting, at Columbia Manor, was to brainstorm ideas with residents about how to reuse the historic roundhouse. It also included a rare, detailed account of the building’s layout and condition.
The roundhouse is owned by Canadian Pacific and not open to the public. It can only be seen from a distance, over a fence west of Central Avenue at 29th Avenue. A team of consultants for the city toured the grounds last week as part of its reuse study.
The oldest parts of the 49,000-square-foot structure are in the worst condition, reported Thomas Zahn, a St. Paul preservation consultant. The facility was built in phases between 1887 and 1919. One large hole and a couple smaller openings have appeared on the roof, and the masonry is crumbling throughout, some places more severe than others.
“By no means do I think it’s beyond salvaging at this point,” Liddy said.
The building is divided with pillars into what used to be 32 separate train engine bays. Each section is roughly 70 feet deep, 22 feet wide on one end, and 32 feet wide on the other. The ceilings are about 19 feet high.
“It’s a fairly simple space. It’s an open warehouse on a curve,” Liddy said. “It’s just big, open space.”
An open air platform in the center of the semicircle, where a turntable used to move locomotives in and out of stalls, makes for a natural focal point, Zahn said. And large doors on the ends of each stall allow for letting in lots of light and fresh air, he said.
Along with a series of interviews with public officials, real estate developers, rail workers and others, comments at Monday’s meeting generated a lengthy list of possible visions for the site.
One person suggested a year-round farmers’ market, with all the large doors propped open on days with pleasant weather. Another suggested artist studios, and Liddy said it might be an ideal location for a foundry for metal work.
A residential use has been ruled out because of ground pollution at the site and the railroad’s desire to continue operating a high-volume of trains on tracks running adjacent to the roundhouse.
The property is designated by the city for industrial use. One such use is a still a long shot but came up at the meeting nonetheless: Ostrow said it’s possible that if streetcars return to Minneapolis, the roundhouse could function as a maintenance shop.
“Theoretically, they are looking for a place to maintain cars, and, at least theoretically, that would be a pretty novel reuse,” Ostrow said.
Kevin Carroll, senior project coordinator with the city, said one of the most frequently voiced priorities from residents is the demand for public access.
“We’ve heard that a lot: We want to be able to get in and see it,” Carroll said.
Along that line, a museum was suggested Monday. So was a park and an outdoor amphitheater.
State Rep. Diane Loeffler suggested looking into whether the roundhouse could link to the Minnesota Transportation Museum in St. Paul, possibly with a rail shuttle between the two.
The suggestion that retail such as a smaller grocery chain be included in the plans appeared to be coldly received by those who attended the meeting. The retail option might be at a disadvantage regardless because the roundhouse sits several yards off of Central Avenue.
Once the city and neighborhood finalize a vision for the site, the next step will be getting the property into the hands of a developer who can carry it out. Adjacent property on Central Avenue north of the roundhouse would almost certainly be included in any deal, Zahn said.
Canadian Pacific is open to redeveloping the parcels and has been talking with the city in recently years about the matter, Ostrow said. The fact it’s cleaning up pollution at the site is also a good sign the railroad is preparing to sell the land, Carroll added.
Still, “they’re not going to give it to us,” Ostrow said. “One of the challenges is going to be that the railroad will be looking for the highest price for the land.”
It wasn’t yet clear how much rehabbing the roundhouse will cost. The consultants were seeking guesses from masonry experts about the price tag for repairing all the crumbling brick inside and outside the structure. Whatever the cost, it won’t be feasible without support from the city, Liddy said.
Canadian Pacific applied to the city in 1997 for eight demolition permits for Shoreham Yards, including the roundhouse. A plan then involved selling an 18-acre parcel for a retail development. The city denied the permits and a year later settled a federal lawsuit with the railroad protecting the roundhouse. The court agreement also created the Shoreham Area Advisory Committee.
The City Council voted in 2000 to support a developer’s plan to reuse the building as a technology and business incubator. Canadian Pacific took the property off the market in April 2000, however, after severe pollution problems were discovered at the site. An extensive cleanup effort is still ongoing at the property and continues to dampen development interest.
Few if any people have followed the issue more closely the last decade than Gayle Bonneville, a Waite Park neighborhood resident and member of the Shoreham advisory committee. As the site works its way to the top of city planners’ priority lists, the years of attending meetings might be close to paying off.
“This is really a time for optimism,” Bonneville said. “I think we can do something really exciting.”