By now, you have probably seen clips of the first Central Corridor light rail train car making its maiden voyage on Sunday from Minneapolis to St. Paul. The trip was a test of LRT cars to see if they cleared wayside signal equipment among other things. (They did.)
But how are things going on the streets and in the neighborhoods along what will be called the Green Line?
After all, the point of making a $1 billion investment in mass transit isn’t solely to move groups of people from one spot to another — though doing so should cut down on energy use, traffic congestion and commuter agita. City planners increasingly see a larger purpose: to use transit as a catalyst that attracts housing, offices and stores to the nearby areas.
They call it TOD, or transit-oriented development.
Such growth doesn’t come automatically. If you don’t believe me, take a look at Hiawatha Avenue.
Although the LRT from the Mall of America to downtown Minneapolis has been operating since 2004, progress has been slow. Only now are several apartment buildings starting to rise. As for stores and restaurants, well, except for Walgreen’s and MacDonald’s, I don’t see much.
To make sure that something does happen along the Green Line, some 13 local and national foundations (among them, Annie E. Casey, Ford, McKnight and both the Minneapolis and St. Paul Foundations) formed the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative (CCFC) in 2008. Together, they are investing hard cash (PDF), some $20 million over a 10-year period to develop corridor-wide strategies and planning. (The CCFC provides support for this column, but to emphasize my complete independence, I will try to say something critical about them somewhere in this column.)
The CCFC effort is the size of a whale, but one with as many tentacles as a giant squid. (Call it a squale.) It has working groups on housing, commerce, job access, minority hiring by contractors and more, and each has at least a dozen officials and representatives from city government agencies as well as nonprofits and trade and business associations.
There’s also a Friendly Streets initiative, and God knows what else, and together all these folks have produced enough reports to denude a small forest near Leech Lake.
With all that, it should come as no surprise that the group issues an annual tracking report. Its third, called “Progress Beyond the Rail” (PDF), came out last week. In concert with Wilder Research, it attempts to update measures for desirable outcomes in four areas — affordable housing, business development, “vibrant, transit-oriented spaces” and effective coordination and collaboration among its dozens and dozens of participants. So here are their goals and what’s going on with them:
Access to affordable housing
The principal areas of concern are the Midway Central, Midway East and downtown St. Paul neighborhoods. Downtown East and Midway West (east of the University) in Minneapolis are fairly well-off communities, while the area around the U is full of students whose poverty, we hope, is temporary. Along the Midway and in downtown St. Paul, however, anywhere from 43 percent to 49 percent of households earn less than $30,000 a year.
An area is considered affordable if housing plus transportation costs (H + T) are less than 45 percent of income. Along the corridor, people with incomes under 60 percent of the area’s median, or about $31,400, spend 41 percent of their pay on H + T. That compares favorably with Minneapolis and St. Paul as a whole where the index is 47 percent.
But the report notes that the Corridor is becoming less affordable. In its first “baseline” report two years ago, H + T accounted for only 34 percent of income.
What the CCFC wants to see is a mix of incomes in the area; it seems worried that low-income people may eventually be priced out.
“Rents are projected to rise 15 percent once the LRT is running,” says Gretchen Nicolls, program officer for Twin Cities LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corporation), which, with dozens of other groups, crafted an affordable housing plan that calls for up to 4,500 new or renovated low-income housing units in the area.
A strong local economy
Interestingly, for all the worries about businesses going under or leaving during the construction phase of the LRT, the biggest losses have occurred in the two downtowns in the past three years. Since those are both areas that concentrate financial services, which took it in the neck during the recession, that development is understandable, albeit dismaying.
The most vibrant area seems to be around the University; students may be poor, but there are a lot of them channeling money from their parents or student loans and grants. Interestingly, Midway East gained enterprises, but mostly health-care and social assistance offices, not necessarily indicators of an improved neighborhood economy.
Those measures include whole districts. When it comes to interruption of businesses along the LRT line itself, 100 enterprises have opened, and a nearly equal batch went under or moved off the corridor. The net gain has been two businesses.
CCFC has been working to steer businesses to sources of loans and grants to tide them over or to renovate and improve. One of the more powerful efforts is the Neighborhood Development Center’s business expansion lending program, which helps owners put together their own money with that of a funding source. Their proudest recent achievement, says Isabel Chanslor of the University Avenue Business Preparation Collaborative, is the $800,000 renovation of the Ha Tien Grocery, which included new floors, ceilings and refrigerators.
There’s also a program under way to persuade large local institutions (schools and health care facilities) to do their purchasing at area businesses. But Jonathan Sage-Martinson, CCFC’s director, says that the efforts are not yet wholly visible.
“There are more signs around improvements in housing than in commerce,” he says. Until the LRT goes into operation, we’re unlikely to know whether the area will continue to struggle or whether it will attract street-level businesses that can employ local residents and offer them more shopping choice and service.
LRT employment and contracts
The Minnesota Department of Human Rights established work goals for the Central Corridor LRT; 6 percent of work hours were to go to women and 18 percent to minority group members. By and large, contractors fulfilled or gently exceeded the requirement except one, which fell down on minority hiring.
Contracting to so-called Disadvantaged Business Enterprises hasn’t been quite as robust. Four of 10 contractors failed to meet the 15.3 percent goal. Interestingly, MnDOT was one of them. CCFC’s report points out, however, that there’s still another year of work to be done, and all the underachieving contractors have money left in their budgets to achieve the goals.
Residents working/living in Corridor
To me, this part of the report was a bit distressing. To determine whether it was reaching its goal, CCFC tried to determine to what extent people of low and moderate incomes had a commute of less than 45 minutes to their jobs. Only a third were able to do so, while 46 percent of higher earners could.
That’s bad enough, but according to the report, in the three Midway sections along the LRT line, only about 25 percent of low- and moderate-income residents have a commute of less than 45 minutes.
And what happens when the LRT is complete? Here comes the bad news: “Even with increased access to the downtowns that the light rail will bring to these segments, a relatively small share of employed residents will be able to get to their current jobs via transit within a reasonable commute time.”
It’s hard to know why, but I suspect that low-income people with fewer job skills have less choice about where they work. And many of the jobs they might qualify for are in far-flung suburbs. What that might suggest is that perhaps trying to keep low- and moderate-income people concentrated in a neighborhood where their job skills find no ready employers isn’t the sharpest strategy.
Of course, if more businesses come to the Central Corridor, the mismatch may disappear.
Measuring progress in an area where the game-changing LRT hasn’t yet launched is not an easy task. Whether the CCFC will achieve its goals — and whether they’ve chosen the right goals — probably won’t be answered for a number of years.
But one item the report failed to capture — and perhaps it’s the most important — a change of spirit in the area.
“Construction is 92 percent done,” says Sage-Martinson. “People are beginning to feel the change the LRT is bringing. They’re seeing some progress in housing and place-making.”
Nicolls agrees: “There’s a feeling we’ve turned the corner, and there’s definitely a sense of momentum.”
At this point, you can’t ask for more than that.