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With Bottineau Line, community advocates want to avoid repeating history

Some community advocates worry that light rail stakeholders along the route aren’t taking full advantage of the lessons learned from past light rail projects, especially the Green Line. 

Brooklyn Park has been talking about light rail for years. “Probably every two to three weeks we have something light rail,” said Brooklyn Park Mayor Jeff Lunde. “We’re always in motion on this.”

There’s a good reason for that. The city will host five of the planned 11 stops on the 13-mile Blue Line Extension, also called the Bottineau Transitway, which will connect downtown Minneapolis to its northwest suburbs. Over the years, Brooklyn Park has been discussing everything from marketing properties to developers to exploring ways to mitigate residential and small business displacement, Lunde says.

To help prevent the line’s construction from displacing the city’s low-income residents, for example, the Brooklyn Park council passed a policy back in November that requires any new housing developments receiving city subsidies to include a certain percentage of affordable housing.

For all that, though, some community advocates worry that light rail stakeholders in places along the Bottineau Line route aren’t taking full advantage of the lessons learned from past light rail projects, especially the Green Line, which was known as the Central Corridor project during planning and construction.

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“When I’m sitting there talking to people in the Bottineau area, it’s like no one knows what happened in the Central Corridor,” said Isabel Chanslor, the chief program officer for the Neighborhood Development Center and who acted as a community liaison during the Green Line’s construction. “It just seems like they’re starting from scratch.”

Chanslor still remembers the toll that the Green Line took on small businesses along University Avenue in St. Paul, especially during the first phases of construction, when poor communication and planning created tensions over traffic detours, limited parking and congestion.

The whole ordeal was a learning experience for her and others involved in the project. But because so many different organizations were involved, she said, many of those lessons haven’t been documented or retained. “It’s individuals retelling the stories, but there isn’t one place to find all those lessons learned and that’s really disappointing,” she said.

That’s part of the reason Colleen Toberman was hired to help run the Blue Line Coalition, a group of more than a dozen community organizations and other stakeholders lobbying for local interests during the planning of the Bottineau project. She joined the group four months ago as its first fulltime staff member to help organize their agenda and run meetings. But she also acts as the group’s voice — and memory.

“All of our members have a lot of other things on their plate besides being part of the coalition,” Toberman said. “I’m here to be kind of a consistent voice for the coalition, and a consistent advisor; the person who kind of keeps track of the landscape.”

The Bottineau Transitway
Metropolitan Council
The Bottineau Transitway will connect downtown Minneapolis to its northwest suburbs.

Blue Line Coalition member JooHee Pomplun said she’s also trying to incorporate the lessons she learned as a community liaison for the Green Line nearly seven years ago. But some of those documents kept during the line’s construction — complaints from business owners, legal records from dealing with damage claims — got lost in the shuffle as many organizers moved on to other organizations and work.

That’s exactly the problem, Chanslor said, and without a central repository for the information, future projects must re-learn lessons all over again. “Everything that we learned. Every mistake that we learned from. Where is all of that? Who has that?” Chanslor said. “I don’t think there’s one person responsible for that, so that’s a challenge, but it is a missed opportunity.”

Of course, not all the issues that faced communities during the Green Line construction will be applicable to the Bottineau Line, said Laura Baenen, a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Council, which is overseeing the project.

While the Green Line had hundreds of mom and pop businesses lining University Avenue, for example — many with private driveways or street parking — that’s not the case with the Blue Line.

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In fact, Baenen said, it’s not until the line passes through four cities and hits Brooklyn Park that there will the route will even remotely resemble the Central Corridor. Even then, she said, the planning process will give affected communities the opportunity to voice any concerns or express their needs, well before construction starts. “There’s a lot of the same issues, but every corridor is a little different,” she said. “So, not one size fits all.”
Even with a routing that should make planning easier for the Met Council, Chanslor said, it should be doing everything it can to ensure the project doesn’t push out small businesses and displace residents. “To me that means, ‘Well okay, then it’s a lot more doable to do it the right way,’” she said, “because it’s still going to disrupt people and businesses.”