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Central Corridor focuses on neighborhood aspirations -- but it needs a better name

Lyric condos
MinnPost photo by Steve Berg
The Lyric at Carleton Place, a new artist-loft project at University and Hampden Avenues, anticipates light rail in 2014.

A half century after the Interstate highways were built you can still see the scars. Drive through almost any town in America and you'll find a struggling main street lined with the ghosts of mom-and-pop stores and town cafes that couldn't compete with the big boxes and fast-food joints that went up on the outskirts, out by the interchanges. Losing your business and your neighborhood back then was just considered tough luck. Geography was being recast in the name of progress and you had been left in the dust.

But not so much anymore. In big cities light rail lines are being built as a kind of counterweight to the past. Just as the Interstates energized the outskirts, perhaps the trains — though on a smaller scale — can bring some measure of rebirth to a few forgotten main streets. University Avenue is one of those.

Trains won't roll along the Central Corridor between the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul for another four years. But various councils and commissions, steering committees and task forces — more than 80 of them by one count — have been hard at work for years anticipating every possible impact.

Two weeks ago, both mayors and the Met Council chairman, as part of the Central Corridor Business Resources Collaborative, announced a "Ready for Rail" initiative to provide a package of information, advice and $1.5 million in loans to help small businesses withstand two seasons of light rail construction. Even after the dust clears and the trains roll, the group intends to be there to hold hands and help local businesses adapt to a new marketplace. That's a far cry from the tough luck era of the Interstates.

"I think it's a result of the lessons folks learned back then," said Jonathan Sage-Martinson, director of the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative, a coalition of foundations and non-profits focused on investing in neighborhoods along the rail line. (My reporting for Cityscape is supported in part by a grant from the Collaborative.) The hope is for a kind of economic success that draws new construction and new prosperity but doesn't force out the businesses and homes already in place. Restoring the possibility of mixed-income communities, another casualty of the Interstate era, is a difficult but worthy aspiration.

A more intimate line than Hiawatha
The collaborative focuses on strengthening local business, ensuring that affordable housing is part of the new mix, and creating a walkable, transit-friendly string of urban villages, each with a flavor that reflects community aspirations.

Jonathan Sage-Martinson
Jonathan Sage-Martinson

The portion of the line from the University of Minnesota to the State Capitol covers roughly seven of the corridor's 11 miles and presents a varied canvass for reimaging the city. The western-most segment, located near the leafy neighborhoods of Prospect Park (Minneapolis) and St. Anthony Park (St. Paul) probably has the most potential for high-end redevelopment. An impressive stock of old buildings near the Raymond-University intersection could evolve into a funky student/faculty district with housing above start-up companies and art galleries. Already the district is thinking of branding itself as "Mid City," said Jon Schumacher, director of the St. Anthony Park Community Foundation.

A bit farther east, the challenge in the Midway District, running roughly from Fairview to Lexington, will be to fill in big-box parking lots on the south side and develop a narrow strip on housing and street-level business on the north side of the street. The east portion between Lexington and Rice hopes to capitalize on ethnic flavors for business while keeping modest residential neighborhoods in tact.

Far more than the other rail corridors built or planned in the Twin Cities, Central is intimately connected to its surroundings. In that way, it's as much a redevelopment tool as a travel option. Even so, no one expects transformation on the scale of, say, Phoenix, where a similar 20-mile starter line touching downtown and a university district has generated $5 billion in redevelopment ($2.5 billion of it private investment) over the past decade.

Slower growth in the Twin Cities, coupled with a slack housing market, may soften and delay the line's impact.

Still, it's hard to imagine a city more ready than St. Paul. Mayor Chris Coleman has gone so far to predict that the line will place his city "back on the map." Extensive planning by Greenberg Consultants and others has mapped every square foot of potential. Layers of community involvement have produced something like 21 building strategies and 94 initiatives. "We really want this corridor to pay off for the people who live and do business here," Sage-Martinson said. "If we don't redevelop as quickly as some other places, that's not necessarily a bad thing. We want to get this right."

Let's have a contest
With digging already begun in the streets of downtown St. Paul, it's high time to find a real name for the Central Corridor's trains. As a brand, "The Central Line" just doesn't cut it. It's right up there with "County Road B" and "Terminals 1 and 2" at the airport. Not much poetry there.

For years, MnDOT has conspired to take the melody out of our daily lives. Cedar Avenue (a nice, fragrant name) became Hwy. 77, and "the Crosstown" was changed to Hwy. 62, a name that only an engineer could love. To me it's still the Gold Concourse at the airport, and the Hiawatha Line is a lovely name, evoking not only Longfellow's poem and the memories of the Milwaukee Road's classic Hiawatha streamliners but places the trains squarely in Twin Cities' geography. The line runs largely down Hiawatha Avenue.

Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons says that a task force is busy studying not only a new name for Central but new "designations" for all of the Twin Cities transit corridors. Options include naming them after colors (blue, perhaps, for Hiawatha, red for Central, green for the Cedar Avenue busway, and so on), or perhaps after letters (H for Hiawatha, S for Southwest, N for North Star.)

I favor the geographic approach. Hiawatha is lyrical and accurate. Northstar is nice. Central? No way. My nominations are:

• The University Line (after the U of M and the avenue the trains follow).

• The Capitol Line (after the State Capitol — or perhaps its capital, St. Paul).

• The Zephyr Line (after the Burlington streamliners that once connected the downtowns).

Let's have a contest. Metro Transit should be open to suggestions.

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Comments (25)

The original name was Midway Corridor. . .

I like "Capitol Line". If you're in St. Paul, it's the line that goes to the Capitol. If you're in Minneapolis, it's the line that goes to the capital city, and the fact that Capital is spelled differently than Capital reinforces to them the illusion that St. Paul is a complicated place. But I like Jane's suggestion, too, and could also live with "Frogtown Flyer".

Zephyr Line says nothing about where it goes to those who were born after the bicentennial.

The naming of public transit lines should reflect functionality over lyricism. Transportation systems are not the way to pay homage to history because it is absolutely important that people understand WHERE THEY GO NOW, not where they went in 1890. The major transit lines in this region go through some of the most dense immigrant areas of region. Colors, numbers, etc. are a lot easier for outsiders to understand than Zephyr or Capitol. Most systems around the world use universal symbols so as to not alienate outsiders (unless, of course, that is what you aim to do).

Another thing to consider, what happens if we extend the "University Line"? Does it retain its name even though it no longer makes sense? What if University Line trains continue on to Eden Prairie, making one contiguous line? Do we call that the Southwest University Line? Surely that line does not go all the way to Texas.

Simplification happens for a reason. Don't let history compromise the future.

University Line works for me. The problem with "Capitol Line" is, it assumes there will only be one LRT line in St. Paul. I have to assume that MNDot will eventually put in a second line, connnecting St. Paul's downtown with the airport. I predict that one will be named the Shepard Road Line.

I've used mass transit systems all over the world, it doesn't matter what you call each line as long as it's marked out, people figure it out. It's nice to map them out in colors so you can clearly see where they go, but the names don't really matter. Boston uses the color scheme, Paris uses numbers, London has names according to destination or route such as the Picadilly line, none of them are more or less confusing. DC has colors and they're cool because they've got little round lights built into the floor of the platform so you know what line your standing on. It is nice to have names though,in Belgium the lines aren't even named, their just organized by time of departure. Brussels is one of the chaotic and confusing train stations I've ever been in. For one thing it's just hard to believe that the trains could run on a precise enough time schedule to make that work, but they do!

I like the "Capital Line" for some reason.

You can call it "University Line" after the U of M if you like, but as I understand it, University Avenue was so named not for the U of M but for Hamline University.

Not a big problem though for people born after the Civil War.

I hate to be Debbie Downer, but a color-naming system is the most efficient. I've used light rail lines in many cities, sometimes in cities where I don't speak the language, and it's always easier to navigate when I can match a color from my map to the signs at the station.

Plus, imagine you're walking around an unfamiliar city. You ask someone, "which train do I take to get to (insert tourist attraction here)?" They say "the blue line." You look at your map, you find a blue squiggly line, and you go.

I'm already picturing the MOA tourists trying to say "Hiawatha" and "Zephyr" Not good.

I actually like Central Corridor - it accurately describes what it is and has its own utilitarian, alliterative ring to it. I really appreciate the fact that it's understated, a reflection of our modesty, eh? Also, to clarify, the lights on the DC metro are all red, their only role is to pulse 30 seconds before a train is due to arrive.

I favor color-branding in tandem with names. University/Gold Line; Hiawatha/Yellow Line; Southwest/Blue Line (SW Corridor). I really hope, however, that the SW Corridor line be called "The Ralph Cramden Route" because it will connect to the superb SW Transit service in Eden Prairie, Chaska and Chanhassen.

How about a slight twist on the bureaucratic sounding Central Corridor, but one that still describes its, what, centrality? I suggest calling it "The Backbone" or "The Spine" for that is what it will be in connecting the body of our Metro region, its backbone.
James McKenzie
Saint Paul

good piece, Steve. As for a name, i still like the "A Train" which represents "The Avenue" of the Twin Cities. The rail line linking Mpls and St. Paul? No brainer. Also, it is a letter, for ease of comprehension and it 's a nod to the last hayday of urban rail in the 30's - the famous Strayhorn song, "Take The A Train" was released in the mid 30's and wouldn't that be a wonderful built-in hook for a marketing campaign? Kind of a back to the future approach recreating an iconic time in the life of the TC's and pointing toward a more vibrant future.

I'd favor University line as a callout to its primary route. But I'd also like to see a better name for the light rail system. LRT just doesn't cut it.

A few years ago, the Strib had some suggestions but they went nowhere, as far as I can tell. My favorite was: SMART - St. Paul - Minneapolis Area Rapid Transit

As a Hamline-Midway resident I really couldn't care less what they call the line. What I do care about is the small businessnes, residents, and visitors along the Corridor. The current plan for no on-street parking which is important to businesses and provides an important barrier between pedestrians and traffic, two through lanes, the outermost of which will be congested with the #16 bus that won't have a spot to pull out of traffic to stop, and no bike accomodation is just a death knell for an already struggling district. University Avenue could be a destination with its great restaurants, interesting small shops, and parks, but instead will be just a way to get somewhere else. Met Council, the FTA, and the City need to listen to all the residents and businesses and move to a single lane of through traffic with turn lanes, bus pull-outs, on-street parking, and a bike lane. Call it what you want, but think of the people that make the Corridor great.

Seems to me that a logical way to satisfy folks on both ends of the line also would define its destinations: The Capitol-University Line.
(Perhaps it'd be useful to have the destination signs on the cars change with the direction -- University-Capitol heading east, Capitol-University heading west.)

The Capitol line is fitting to me. I've spent a lot of time in Boston and the colors are really helpful in delineating routes. Steve, you've really sold development short along the Hiawatha line. Having built one apartment complex near the Vet Center, I've casually calculated a billion dollars in total development already built because of LRT. I don't think the Franklin St. revival would be nearly as successful if not for LRT. The Central Corridor line will turn out to be the most powerful economic stimulant in the history of Minnesota. It will be transformative. The potential for pedestrain traffic and concentrated high density development along University is unlimited. And for you naysayers, a new busline just doesn't do that.

How about TWIN TOWN ALLEY or ALLEY 21 for the twenty first century?

...can't tell I like alleys which have almost been forgotten; erased from the drawing boards in favor of more sterile concepts by some urban and suburban planners...after all it is but or will soon be one long alley, passage; corridor of commerce and diverse pocket neighborhoods. That was the old University Avenue concept. Now we plan rather than naturally develop spaces and places.

Bring back the alley...Alley 21 for the twenty first century...enough already...

Back to the name/color thing, man you can tell MN's are not used to transit systems like this. One advantage to rail systems is they are on static lines that don't change. This means you can put up maps at ll the stations, and on all the trains. Now every system I've seen, with the possible exception of Amsterdam's system, are color coded regardless of the name of the line. And by the way, if you don't speak the language you know the names for colors any more than anything else. So you get on the Capital line, it will red or blue on the map anyways. Just google any transit system, like London, or Paris, or DC, and you'll see the maps. It's nice because you can sit on the train and match the platforms to the map on the on the train as you go by, that way you know whether or not you're on the right train. On a bus in an unfamiliar city, you have to carry a map with you, and it can be very difficult make sure you're on the right bus.

Hey here's an idea, it doesn't matter what you call them but every line should be color coded on the map, and the trains should have matching color LED lights on them! Every train could have all the lights, it would just be a matter of switching on the right color when the train is assigned a line.

Do not get caught up in glitzy names which the people (users) will not use. Call it what the users will end up calling it anywway, and which they know it by...i.e.."Central Corridor".
This reminds me of the placement of sidewalks to/from newly-erected buildings. Many times they later pour a new sidewalk on the path that the users made...i.e...on shortcuts cutting the corners.

When I see "Central Corridor" I think Central Avenue in Nordeast Minneapolis.

I believe the old streetcar line was initially called the Interurban (and some people believe that's where the term "interurban" originated, but I haven't been able to find much evidence of that). University Line is also fine by me.

Dinkytown/Frogtown for Mr. Gendler's destination change, plus colors please. Also love Mr. Landskroener's SMART for the system and Mr. Steller's comment re: Hamiline University.

SMART. I like it -- short, catchy, easy to remember, like BART in San Francisco. But a buck says some nimrod in Minneapolis will balk at St. Paul getting top billing.

BTW: A direct line from downtown St. Paul to the airport should be mandatory.

I disagree. There’s no need for a new name for the Central Corridor light rail transit.
The Central Corridor’s uniqueness is that it is central to the metropolitan region and central to the core cities economy. The Central Corridor will be like no other in the region as it will connect, and travel exclusively in, the two central cities—Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Further, the current name has been used for over a decade as persistent visions kept the project alive, and over the past couple years in very detailed and comprehensive planning for the line and the associated housing and commercial development.

As they say “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” If “Central” is deemed too bland, we should still highlight the role this transit line will play in connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul. In that case, how about the “City line,” “Mid-city line,” or “Connector Line.”

Whatever the name, this corridor is the region’s test bed for getting transit-oriented-development right. Getting transit-oriented-development right is critical in leveraging economic development, transit ridership, affordable housing and environmental benefits.

Getting development right adjacent to the corridor right means carefully advancing two important goals. One, substantially increased housing and commercial density – as this corridor will maximize what transit does best-- providing access to jobs, and other key destinations. And second, maintaining and expanding affordable housing and small businesses, and enhancing not dividing current communities.

I keep thinking of the nickname Steve Cannon of WCCO radio always had for University Avenue. This would work only for those born well before the millenium, but let's go with "the Corridor of Broken Hearts."