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Ramsey County is lining up another piece of what it hopes will be a regional transportation hub in downtown St. Paul.

It will have room for urban dwellers, too.

The County Board, acting as the Regional Rail Authority, gave preliminary approval Tuesday to an $8.1 million deal to buy the head house, or lobby, of the Union Depot -- a year after agreeing to pay $49.6 million for the rear concourse.

Current plans call for the Central Corridor light-rail line to have its final city stop in front of the block-long lobby facing 4th Street in the Lowertown area. But there are hopes, too, for Amtrak to relocate its Midway area operations to the depot concourse by 2012, and for bus lines to operate out of the depot, as well, said Commissioner Jim McDonough, the rail authority chairman.

"We're excited about this," he said Tuesday. "It's going to be a tremendous development opportunity for that area."

JAS Apartments, Inc., the head house owner, would retain control of lofts now housed there.

One commissioner has expressed concerns about the lofts not being part of the deal, McDonough said. But he added he was comfortable with the proposed agreement. Asked how he thought apartment dwellers could coexist with Amtrak trains, McDonough said: "You have some pluses and minuses in where you choose to live."

Steve Frenz, president of JAS Apartments, could not be reached to comment.

As part of the deal, Christos Union Depot Place restaurant is expected to continue operating in the lobby's "Great Hall."

The two sides are scheduled to close the deal May 29, according to a purchase agreement approved, 5-1, by commissioners Tuesday. In the next 30 days, the county will examine the building for any mechanical or other issues, and present a final report to the board before the deal is finalized, McDonough said.

Commissioner Toni Carter said she supports the purchase. With access to the concourse secured, she said, it only made sense to have use of the front door, too.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109