Lake Street rebuild offers guidance on Central Corridor rail projectby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
Community groups meet in St. Paul this weekend to seek answers to longstanding questions about the Central Corridor light rail project. If, as expected, Central Corridor wins final federal approval next year construction on the line might start in 18 months. The recent rebuilding of Lake Street in Minneapolis offers some clues about what businesses and residents can expect during the Central Corridor construction project.
St. Paul, Minn. — Parking is a major concern among the community groups meeting this weekend.
Peter Vang worries smaller businesses on University avenue won't survive the loss of hundreds of parking spaces during and after construction. Vang manages the family business.
The family plunked down $5 million to purchase an old car dealership site at University and Marion, refurbish the building and create commercial space for Hmong owned businesses.
Vang predicts they'll be OK because their building has lots of off street parking that smaller neighboring businesses lack.
"Once construction starts they will have no parking which means their customers are going to have to navigate around all the construction detours and then have to park and then walk maybe a block or more to get to them," Vang said.
That sounds like disaster, but Joyce Wisdom says it doesn't have to be. Wisdom is executive director of the Lake Street Council across the river in Minneapolis.
People interested in Central Corridor have asked Wisdom and other Lake Street folks about their experiences to help guide the project.
The years' long rebuild of Lake Street, which like University Ave. is one of the state's major commercial corridors, is nearly done.
The loss of revenue for businesses during the upheaval ranged from zero to 60 percent, according to Wisdom. One lesson, she says, is start telling your customers now about what's ahead so they won't be surprised when the backhoes show up.
The assumption Lake Street businesses reliant on car traffic would fold wasn't true, Wisdom says.
"Our exceptions to that were that our more ethnically and culturally specific auto repair shops...they lost no revenue and in fact they had waiting customers through the course of the construction because they have loyal customers," Wisdom said.
Besides questions about parking, loss of revenue, adding light rail stations and many other concerns University Ave. residents and businesses meeting Saturday and Sunday also want to know the construction schedule.
Where and how long will sections of University avenue be torn up?
The answer from Central Corridor planners is no one knows. The project hasn't gotten the final green light from the Federal Transit Administration and thus no bids have been let. Even when the schedule and locations are announced, Julie Ingebretsen says, expect changes.
Ingebretsen is the third generation owner of a gift shop and deli on Lake Street. The Lake Street construction schedule often didn't match what was announced because of all the players involved, according to Ingebretsen.
"There's Xcel to deal with and the phone company and the water company and all these different levels of government and commerce that have their own schedules and their own projects...one thing they told us early on is they'd do one little chunk and then finish it, and then move on and then do another little chunk and finish it and that never happened," Ingebretsen said.
A handful of businesses didn't survive the tumult but most did, according to the Lake Street Council and now the news is mostly good.
Business is back, Lake Street looks good and property values are rising. That means property taxes are rising as well. That's the prediction for what will happen on University Ave. when the light rail line is running in 2014.
Light rail is regarded by many as a development tool as much as a way to move people.
Businesses are hoping the city will spread the cost of the project, said Linda Winsor with the University Avenue Business Owners Assn.
Members of her association want the city to address the higher property taxes that might result from higher property values.
"If there can be caps or reliefs or transfer of responsibility for some of the financial issues, those are the kinds of things they'd be looking for," Winsor said.
The 11 mile long, $915 million Central Corridor light rail line will run between St. Paul and Minneapolis and will be the state's largest and arguably most complex public works project.
Years of waiting, a vigorous outreach effort by Central Corridor planners and a very tight budget have all combined to create a lot of dissension about how it should be built.
Organizers say the weekend summit is an attempt to work more closely with planners and create a written agreement that will coordinate efforts and hold everyone accountable for the success of the project.
The summit is Saturday and Sunday at the Central Corridor Resource Center, 1080 University Ave. W. in St. Paul at Lexington & University.
- Morning Edition, 03/06/2009, 7:25 a.m.