Monday, May 28, 2012

A Tale of Twin Cities

Saving a threatened business community here in the Twin Cities became a primary goal of some very creative people and I salute their resourcefulness and determination.
by Charlie Leck

Here’s the situation!
For my readers from other parts of the country, let me explain a little bit about the geography of the Twin Cities (St. Paul and Minneapolis) in Minnesota. I’ll begin this way. It’s about 11 driving miles from Target Field (our major league baseball park) in downtown Minneapolis to the Excel Center (our National Hockey League arena) in downtown St. Paul. That pretty much takes you from downtown to downtown.

Somewhere in between is the mighty Mississippi River. This rolling river is often thought of as the boundary between the two cities. It’s not really, except in a very small section of the city – like from about the East Lake Street bridge where it crosses the river to Marshall Street in St. Paul, and then on to the south edge of Minneapolis. Otherwise, the big river divides the neighborhoods of Minneapolis (S.E. and N.E. from N. and S.) as it flows from the northwest to the southeast of the city.

The pink line on the map above represents the
area where Minneapolis and St. Paul are divided
by the Mississippi River (from Fort Snelling on
the south to just above Lake Street on the north).
There are 21 lakes within the city limits of

At this time, one can take a bus between the two cities and, if you can catch an express bus, that’s not too bad. Several years ago, the transportation geniuses decided it would be swell to put a light rail transportation line between the two cities – from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul (our state’s capitol city). The cost was staggering, but, back then, under the George W. Bush administration, when the economy was booming, the government was spending money freely and easily and we won a large federal grant to help us pay for the project. Hooray!

In late 2010, with all the contracts let out, the building of the line began. The experts knew that the construction was going to cause a lot of problems for small businesses and for the industrial and residential neighborhoods through which the new line was going to pass. However, these experts thought the situation could be eased by careful planning and the tempers of residents and business owners could be soothed by some smooth and fast talking.

Well, over the last year, as the construction crews tore up one of the main traffic arteries between the two cities, University Avenue, the small businesses along that route saw traffic and their business begin to dry up. Afterall, it was difficult to get to the little, international restaurants and markets, the coffee shops, the laundramats and dry cleaners, the print shops and the little theaters.

The question has become: How can the situation be ameliorated? If the little businesses could hold on through this construction cycle, they will have a golden opportunity to be more successful when the project is completed late in 2014. New housing will grow along the line and that means thousands of new people will be within the market range of these little businesses.

Will the change result in gentrification – that is, the replacement of the middle/lower income base that lives along the corridor now by higher income types who might not be attracted to these businesses? It’s a danger, but a known danger that planners are trying to watch out for and control

“An area of greatest concern for Central Corridor neighborhoods has been the fear that once the trains begun running, gentrification will ignite as speculators buy properties for high-end housing and for retail developments affordable only to national chains. Poorer residents will be forced to leave as the avenue becomes, perhaps, a more trendy and inviting thoroughfare in both cities, not the fascinating urban mosaic of different cultures and income levels it has been for decades.”
                          [Frank Jossi in Capitol Life in The Capitol Report]

Back in 2008, three major, local foundations (the McKnight Foundation, the Knight Foundation and the St. Paul Foundation) put together and funded a new organization called the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative (CCFC). The collaborative is deeply involved in projects surrounding affordable housing, local economic conditions and transit oriented places and businesses. Our region learned from the mistakes of other communities that did similar projects and we’re trying to stay a step ahead of disaster here.

CCFC provides money for local groups who have interests in widely disparate fields – like the arts and the survival of housing and small business during construction. The collaborative also tries to referee disputes that arise among huge (the University of Minnesota) and tiny (Asian restaurant owners) institutions along the line. For example, the collaborative worked with the Metropolitan Transit Commission to get three stations added to the planned route in response to citizen and business requests.

More importantly, CCFC is trying to make its own funds reap profits in terms of growing the economy of the neighborhoods through which the trains will pass. The foundation grants have been used to develop over 26 million dollars in additional investment by government agencies and other foundations. Funds have been used to help current businesses market themselves and assure consumers that it is safe and convenient to venture into the construction area. Neighborhood events and celebrations have been sponsored and these succeeded in luring curious people back to the avenue. The opening and closing of businesses along the corridor has been carefully tracked.

The funders’ collaborative is doing heroic work. They are pumping a life stream into the community during this very trying construction period. Other major cities all over America are watching how the Twin Cities is doing this crucial work; that is, keeping a community alive while it is virtually torn to pieces by a vast and extensive construction project that covers an 11 mile corridor.

Sometime in the summer of 2014 the project should be completed and it will be great fun for so many people to move so conveniently along University Avenue. The crucial question is whether we have managed to keep alive the hundreds of little, family owned businesses that are struggling so during this construction period.

The Metropolitan Council, in charge of the region’s transportation system, estimates that the project will be 75 percent complete by the end of this year (2012).

Some highlights for those interested
(This will probably only interest local readers.) The western terminus of the new line will be at the Target Field station, where the Twins play, and will connect passengers to the North Star Line (large rail) that presently runs northwest through those suburban areas and on toward St. Cloud (currently terminating in the community of Big Lake).
The new transit line will head out of Minneapolis and make stops at the Nicollet Mall, the Government Plaza (City Hall and the County Government Center), and at the sight of the new Vikings stadium that will open in 2016. At that point travelers could transfer to the Hiawatha line that goes south to the airport and to the Mall of America. The new rail line then goes into the West Bank community of the University of Minnesota and crosses over to the East Bank of the University with a stop there and at Stadium Village (where the University football stadium, hockey arenas and basketball arena are). There are great benefits that come with having the stops at both the new Vikings stadium and the Stadium Village at the University. This will alleviate parking problems at both sites and enable fans to arrive at the stadium after parking at much more remote locations. These stadium areas will also then be easy to reach by train from the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport (MSP).

At that point it moves on to University Avenue and heads toward St. Paul with a stop at the Minneapolis Prospect Park Station. In St. Paul, the train will stop at the following streets that cross University Avenue: Raymond (connecting to the current AmTrak Station) Fairview, Snelling, Hamline, Lexington, Victoria, Dale, Western, and then Rice Street (and the State Capitol Building). There the line will head down Robert Street toward downtown St. Paul, stopping at 14th Street, then move over to Cedar Street with stops at 10th Street, 4th Street and finally at the St. Paul Union Depot (the hope is that one day AmTrak will move its terminal to the Union Depot).

This is one of the largest urban construction projects ever undertaken in Minnesota and managing it carefully and protecting the interests of people who live and work along the corridor has been incredibly important. To this point the Metropolitan Council gets a B+ grade and CCFC gets an A+ for its extraordinary work. Hold on all you people who own businesses and property along the corridor because a brighter day is coming.

Here the pink line shows the route of the light rail between the downtown areas of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The system will open sometime in 2014. Another line connects downtown Minneapolis with the International Airport and the Mall of America. A top at the Viking's new stadium (2016) will be on both lines. There will be three University of Minnesota stops on the new line and that will greatly aid students and spectators for University sports events.

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