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Study warns a way of life threatened along new Central Corridor line

Current map of the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit route.
Map of the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit route.

Eve Swan’s roots in the historic Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul run deep. As a child, she ran across the street from her two-story stucco home to the Jimmy Lee Rec Center along North Lexington Parkway to ride her bike and join in after-school craft activities.

Now she both lives in and operates her own beauty salon out of that house on Concordia Avenue, maintaining her neighborhood connection for almost five decades and determined to not let the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit line sever it.

Swan fears gentrification, the sweeping in of a new, wealthier order and wide displacement of her many working-class neighbors as well as small, independent, minority-owned businesses like hers and those on nearby University Avenue, which she patronizes regularly. “This is how we make our living.”   

"I'm concerned people will be taxed out of their properties because of light rail and new construction,'' said Swan, an African-American and one of about a dozen members of the Save Our Homes Coalition.  

Her fears appear real, judging from a new study due to be released online today by the Healthy Corridor for All Coalition. Perhaps not surprisingly, the study reveals "serious potential threats to the 1,068 small businesses on the Corridor, as well as to health, housing and job access for the large low-income and minority communities in the area.''

"People are already on the tipping point of not being able to live on the corridor,'' says Kate Hess Pace, project director of the draft study.

Home values are increasing significantly — up 77 percent in the last decade — and higher than city or county increases, according to the report, she says.

Further, the study shows a steady spike in the proportion of households paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent. Couple that with the fact that neighborhoods along the St. Paul side of the LRT line have higher percentages of lower-income residents than either the city of St. Paul or Ramsey County.

The study, a survey of mostly government data, is intended to help guide decisions concerning construction of the LRT line and zoning decisions, Hess Pace explains. The work was released at a community meeting Saturday.   

"We're not anti-light rail at all,'' she says. "In fact, we're looking at how this could bring opportunities to the people. The definition of success is keeping people in their homes and keeping businesses that are already there and improving the quality of life along the corridor as well.''    

To that end the study uses a Health Impact Assessment to consider the effect of the LRT line moving into and along neighborhoods from downtown St. Paul toward downtown Minneapolis. Healthy surroundings, good jobs, secure homes and safe transportation make for a healthy community and citizenry, according to the concept.

Take into account that neighborhoods are more diverse along this line than either the city of St. Paul as a whole or Ramsey County, with a 53 percent white population and the poverty rate, at 27 percent in 2009, exceeding St. Paul (20 percent) and Ramsey County (14 percent).

The approach is a "unique public health initiative'' that involves community and government, new state commissioner of health Ed Ehlinger, says. If done well, the LRT line "will really enhance the health" of the community, the physician and public health expert said.

He characterized the approach as a way of giving the community the information needed to "become engaged and take ownership of some of the policy decisions that are going to be made.''

He was quick to mention, as well, the state Department of Health's two year LRT study, which documents the health of those living along the LRT route.

The Healthy Communities Count Project has documented baseline measurements of such health markers as lead poisoning in children, infant mortality and low birth rates, asthma hospitalizations, educational attainment, employment, easy access to healthy food, and land and housing quality.

Behind the Healthy Corridor for All study is an activist coalition led by ISAIAH, a faith-based organization of 90-member congregations, TakeAction Minnesota's Hmong Organizing Program, and the national research and policy institute PolicyLink, as well as 22 other organizations reflecting diverse constituencies along the line.  

The study is issued in draft form to allow public feedback before finalizing the report and recommendations, including zoning recommendations, according to Hess Pace.

That analysis — one of several which have been or are being conducted — includes only the St. Paul side of the LRT route, roughly the line heading east from about University Avenue and Minnesota Highway 280 in the Midway area to downtown St. Paul.

Other findings
Among other findings in the study, funded with a grant from the Health Impact Project, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts, are these:

• Jobs are a concern, Hess Pace said, because there is a "mismatch" between available jobs and the educational qualifications of persons living nearby. Forecasts suggest jobs expansion will be in retail shops as well as offices, the first often providing less than a living wage and the second category requiring college degrees, which most nearby residents do not have. More than 60 percent of all jobs in St. Paul are located on the corridor.

• The impact on local business could be serious, according to the study. The area is a growing medium for many small and minority-owned businesses, which are typically "more disadvantaged than their white-owned and large counterparts,'' the report suggests, and thus more likely to be disrupted by a major development project such as the LRT line. Eighty-six percent of organizations along the route are small businesses, with 13 percent minority-owned.

• Household costs are up. An estimated 51 percent of households paid more than 30 percent of their income on rent and 37 percent of owners paid more than 30 percent on mortgage costs in 2009. That was up from 39 percent for renters in 2000 and 21 percent for owners in 2000.

• Unemployment among residents in these neighborhoods is tallied at 9.9 percent (in contrast to 7.6 percent in Ramsey County) with 37 percent of households earning less than 150 percent of the poverty line for a family of three.

The study is based on data from the 2010 U.S. Census, the American Community Survey, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and some original research and was analyzed by PolicyLink.  

Speakers at the Saturday meeting urged that the LRT better the community.

"Black, Vietnamese, Hmong, Somali, Latino and white, we all live here, play here, do business here, pray here, cry here, love right here on the central corridor,'' said Liz Xiong, a member of the Health Corridor for All Steering Committee and leader in Take Action Minnesota's Hmong Organizing Program. "It has always been a place we can relate to and afford, and we need to make sure it stays that way.''    

Added Doran Schrantz, executive director of Isaiah: "Success for the light rail must mean that the people who live and work on the corridor also reap the benefits of this huge public investment.''

As for LRT corridor resident Swan? She's not angry about the light rail. "We just want to share. We want to stay here and enjoy the light rail coming through,'' she said.

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Comments (10)

It is best to take it as a given that the physical character of the neighborhood is going to change with LRT - University Ave is currently a borderline suburban corridor with many big boxes and predominantly single-family neighborhoods. The addition of a very urban form of transit will change this irrevocably, and, so sorry, in the broader scheme of things, this is a desirable outcome.

If the social fabric of the neighborhood is to remain some of its current character and diversity, then it will be necessary for current residents to understand and embrace the physical changes to its layout.

That means accepting density, even where height might 'hurt the character of the neighborhood', accepting loss of parking in favor of better transit and pedestrian access, and accepting that some businesses won't make it while doubling down on support of truly valued ones.

If the stated goal of community groups is to attempt the impossible task of preserving the neighborhood in formaldehyde - single-use, one story buildings, parking lots, and all - then yes, it will likely become much wealthier, better educated, and whiter than it is now. Rents on very limited areas of retail space will continue to rise, and the limited supply of single-family homes will be snapped up and renovated by people with graduate degrees.

If LRT is embraced, and the neighborhood becomes denser and new commercial space occupies existing parking lots, then I think the diversity can be maintained. And that would be the best outcome of all, in my opinion.

Did the designers of this project actually listen to any public input before moving forward with their plan? Talk about social engineering at its best! They want to force long-term, stable residents out of their homes; take away nearly all parking, forcing University Avenue shoppers and diners to shop and dine elsewhere; and rezone a large number of buildings, making them unsellable non-conforming use properties.

These are the same concerns that residents and business owners and others have voiced since the beginning. My personal preference would have been for the train to follow I-94, with stops at Snelling, the Amtrak depot, the University and downtown Minneapolis. Or, in St. Paul, at least run a block north or south of University so the street itself would not be so drastically changed.

Unlike Hiawatha Avenue, essentially a through street with little housing in Minneapolis until the train came through, University is a neighborhood of great diversity. Ethnic stores and restaurants line the Avenue as they do Lake Street. Would anyone run a train down its middle?

Ok, let's clear a few things up. I was at this rally and have been working alongside University Avenue residents for a long time on the Central Corridor project.

@Nathan

Yes, residents understand change is coming. They are nervous about it, but also excited. It's not change _per_se_ that they fear. It's change that harms those currently living in the neighborhood. Neighborhoods have done a LOT of work to plan what they want their communities to look like.

No one thinks the neighborhood as is can or should be preserved exactly. They just don't want to be pushed out by higher property taxes and rents.

@Mike

There were a lot of community forums. There were also a lot of deaf ears in the Met Council. But they get more blame than they should. The whole flawed input process started with Ramsey County. A big problem with these projects is that people don't even know they're happening until they get to the Met Council and by that time, the major decisions have been made. Lots of us are working hard to figure out a better process.

No one wanted to eliminate parking. It was a consequence of a decision to preserve four lanes of traffic. I personally strongly disagree with that decision, but the question wasn't, "should we remove parking?" It was, "should we maintain four lanes of traffic?" The parking loss followed from the answer to that question.

No one wants to force out residents, but we know that there is no neutral decision. Doing nothing to prevent the negative effects of gentrification will guarantee that they happen.

@Bernice

An I-94 alignment was a non-started. It was studied and found to be inferior. It cost too much (every bridge along I-94 would have to be rebuilt, for example) and didn't actually fulfill the main goal of the project: to provide high-quality transit for those living and working along University Avenue. Central Corridor is NOT primarily for getting from downtown to downtown. It is for moving people in, out and around the University Avenue corridor. An alignment north of University fails for the same reason. People don't want to go to somewhere north of University Ave. They want to go to University Ave.!

LRT is about much more than getting people from A to B. It is about creating an urban landscape that helps cities thrive. That doesn't happen if we avoid major commercial corridors.

Portland's Interstate line is a good model what for Central Corridor will/could look like. Interstate Ave. has many of the same characteristics of University Ave. I encourage everyone interested to take a look at what's happening there.

An I 94 LRT is a terrible idea. I've tried walking from a Congress Branch El station in chicago to an neighborhood and the United Center. The insterstate median stations result in a poor pedestrian environment and requires long long walks to get anywhere. For less money the Twin Cities will get a line that actually connects places rather than a no man's land in the middle of a freeway.

I don't get this notion that parking will be constrained after LRT. The current street parking is largely underutilized and there are thousands of private spots available. Customers will adapt and merchants will actually have to maintain their existing off street spots rather than count on the city to provide and plow street spots. Further, there is so much disused commerical property on the ave that I don't see a supply shortage anytime soon. I agree more should be done on the affordable housing front.

If Lake were 120 feet wide and connected four huge employment areas it would be a prime candidate for LRT. Uptown is a major residential, retail and entertainment hub but really there aren't the same trnasit trip drivers that exist along University.

I really think of the Central Corridor LRT as a modern streetcar, though it will be a bit more heavy-duty than that and won't stop quite as often. Unlike the Hiawatha which has priority in most of its route and gets up to 55 mph in places, the CCLRT is going to travel at a low speed and follow the traffic lights almost the whole way

The CCLRT will use the same right-of-way that old streetcars did back from 1890 to 1953/1954 as University Avenue grew up in the first place, so I view it as a restoration of service as much as anything else. They probably designed it to take up a bit too much space, but University Avenue is pretty wide for the most part. Yes, they're taking away a large number of parking spaces, but there are still going to be 10,000 available in parking lots within a block or two of University.

A route along I-94 would have mostly only served people shuttling from downtown to downtown -- just take a look at how the Route 94 express bus works today. Besides, a freeway trench is a deeply unpleasant place to wait around in. Many parts of University aren't great, but they're way better than the highway. The Interstate is also at least half a mile from University Avenue, which doesn't sound like much but is about a ten-minute walk for a pedestrian. People get discouraged at 20-foot detours, let alone 2,000 feet, so the highway route just wouldn't get anywhere near the same level of ridership as the Central Corridor will.

That said, I wouldn't mind seeing an express train running along I-94, after the Central Corridor is completed.

Have any of these people spent any time on established commuter lines in any other metropolitan areas? Apparently not. LRT will promote and encourage exactly the small minority owned type of business that now flourishes on University Avenue, with one exception. They will have the added advantage of exposure to a rapidly expanding pedestrian population, one that lives locally or commutes daily past their business. These patterns translate into an intense upgrade in local and small business opportunities. The biggest impediment to their survival will be the construction period and it appears by doing the work in sections the impact will be shortened but intensified. I understand the apprehension that taxes will increase as the value of land along the route becomes more coveted. There has to be a way of promoting affordable housing along the corridor while residents that own property enjoy the rising value of their own assets. Perhaps a city property tax rebate can be given residents based on income. There must be solutions as the upside to residents of the line's presence is indeed huge

I live less than a half a mile from the current LRT 38th Street station. My tax assessed homestead property value dropped from $195K to $175K.