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.
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.