Not that long ago, plans to extend Metro Transit’s Blue Line light rail service into the northwest suburbs barely touched Minneapolis’ North Side, bypassing some of the most transit-dependent neighborhoods in the city.
“That was even a criticism of … the old route,” said Chris Beckwith, who has been the Metropolitan Council’s Blue Line extension project director for the last year: “Yeah, but what about north Minneapolis?”
Early plans called for a route running west from downtown along Olson Memorial Highway before turning north along a freight railway on the border of Theodore Wirth Regional Park. But in August 2020, after talks with BNSF Railway broke down, the Met Council decided to look for a new route between Target Field and Brooklyn Park.
Now, far from avoiding north Minneapolis, plans call for the extended light rail line to run along West Broadway, the area’s main commercial corridor. The change could expand the Blue Line’s potential ridership, but some fear the project would displace current residents and existing businesses from an economically vulnerable area.
“They’ve seen it again and again, time after time,” said Candy Bakion, an organizer with the Metropolitan Interfaith Council on Affordable Housing. When a big transit project runs through a community, “somebody gets displaced, and mostly it’s the people of color.”
With construction beginning perhaps as soon as 2026, planners are trying to be clear-eyed about the project’s potential to fuel gentrification. Hennepin County hired a University of Minnesota researcher to convene an Anti-Displacement Working Group comprised of two dozen representatives of affected communities and governments along the route, including Bakion.
“We’re interested in breaking patterns,” said Ricardo Perez, another member of the working group who is an organizer with The Alliance for Metropolitan Stability, “to avoid getting the same outcome that we’ll get from building a train through a neighborhood where people of color have lived for decades without ensuring that they are directly benefiting or that they’re being protected by policy.”
City leaders worry about who foots the bill
The Anti-Displacement Working Group issued a report outlining its recommendations last month, prescribing 17 different possible policy interventions.
Some interventions would be ambitious, like giving tenants an opportunity to purchase their apartment building if their landlord puts it up for sale. Others are politically controversial, like enacting rent control policies. But still other recommendations would be similar to those deployed on previous light rail projects, such as making zero- or low-interest loans available to residents affected by construction.
Minneapolis planning leaders have said the recommendations are a good first step — and that the city has already begun work on or enacted a dozen of the policies on the working group’s list.
However, with anxieties about the project running particularly high in north Minneapolis, city officials have also made it clear that local governments along the route can’t be expected to fund these anti-displacement strategies on their own.
In a June 2 letter to the working group, city staff said they were “concerned about the level of commitment and resources available to successfully implement meaningful anti-displacement strategies.”
Minneapolis spokesperson Sarah McKenzie said the letter was meant to call out that the working group’s report “does not identify specific funding from philanthropies, federal, state, county, Met Council or local government to implement the recommendations.”
“I don’t think any city here, on their own, can completely foot the bill even if they wanted to,” said Minneapolis City Council member Jeremiah Ellison, whose ward would contain most of the route, at a meeting last week. “If, at this point, municipalities are … left to their own devices to implement the recommendations, I think that starts to send the signal that we weren’t ever really serious about anti-displacement.”
Brooklyn Park Mayor Hollies Winston wrote a letter to the Met Council voicing similar concerns: “Community members will be more confident in the promise of [light rail] with a regional commitment to fully fund anti-displacement initiatives at the same level of certainty as physical aspects of the project.”
Why residents are concerned about anti-displacement — and who pays for it
Activists have raised concerns that the light rail extension could turn north Minneapolis into “another Rondo” — a reference to government officials’ decision to build Interstate 94 through the heart of a Black neighborhood in St. Paul in the 1960s.
The Blue Line extension would mostly involve building rails along existing streets and not bulldozing entire city blocks. Still, as the working group’s report noted, gentrification is a real concern: After the 2011 announcement that construction would begin on the Green Line light rail project along University Avenue, average rents and home prices along the route have edged upward.
“Public infrastructure investment in vulnerable communities can often exacerbate harm instead of catalyzing repair and prosperity for existing residents,” read the report, prepared for Hennepin County by the U of M’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs.
“We need to have really strong strategies and investments in place to make sure that we’re keeping businesses afloat before, during and after construction,” said Cathy Gold, a Hennepin County transit official who’s helping to oversee anti-displacement work. “It’s going to take a lift to do this right.”
Some of the anti-displacement strategies are outside the typical scope of a transit project, and others might not qualify for government transit funding.
“Some of [the strategies] certainly wouldn’t be federally eligible,” said the Met Council’s Beckwith. “It doesn’t mean that they’re not important.”
Planners initially expected the Blue Line extension to cost $1.5 billion, with about half of the funding coming from the Federal Transit Administration and another third coming from Hennepin County. (Delays in the project meant the total price tag is likely to be higher.)
The project’s budget will likely contain funds to help relocate businesses who choose to leave the impacted corridor, for example, and also to help with signage to help people navigate the streets to find businesses during construction.
By contrast, forgivable or low-interest loans to help cover businesses’ short term losses during construction aren’t part of the project budget, Beckwith said. During Green Line construction, these low-interest loans helped businesses stay afloat: the Met Council said 128 street-level businesses opened along the new line during construction, 13 more than closed or relocated.
These loans to Green Line businesses were managed by outside philanthropies. No such philanthropy has yet been brought on for the Blue Line extension project, and it’s not yet clear where the money backing these loans would come from.
McKenzie said that Minneapolis’ letter was meant to underscore that identifying those partners — and other regional or outside funding sources — “is one of the more important items to identify in the near term. It should be more than just a list of things to do, but also a means to do the work.”
What comes next?
An upcoming “important milestone” in that effort could occur in spring 2024, when Beckwith said that cities along the route are expected to decide whether to grant “municipal consent” to the project — meaning, in Minneapolis, the City Council and mayor sign off on the route.
If that happens, that’s crucial to lining up outside funding sources for anti-displacement efforts, Beckwith said, because that “sends a signal to those philanthropic organizations or other funders that, yes, cities are on board and the project’s moving forward.”
However, the route for the project through north Minneapolis isn’t final yet. Planners are expected to finalize their route choice through Minneapolis this summer, Beckwith said.
In the meantime, having multiple route options under consideration multiplies the number of property owners who have reason to fear they could be impacted.
“The process continues to to roll forward even though the communities are pushing back,” said Tara Watson, a chiropractor in north Minneapolis and member of the Blue Line’s Business Advisory Committee, at a meeting in May. “They don’t want it. They’re not supporting the project — community organizations, grassroots organizations, business organizations — but the momentum seems to continue to be gaining … and they’re just requesting just to slow down so that people can understand what’s really going on.”
“People are just trying to get ahead of it before it happens,” said Bakion. “Once the line is announced, there’s a total land grab — so they’re trying to prevent that.”
Bakion said communication and outreach will be key to helping current North Side residents reframe their perceptions of the project — to see the new line as an amenity, not a threat. That perception has to be buttressed by policies that show government leaders are interested in preventing displacement.
“We just don’t want it gentrifying [the area],” she said. “We don’t want businesses that are here to be pushed out; we want those businesses to stay, and that access is supported by the transit development — and we want other businesses [to come to the area] also.”
But Bakion is optimistic, gushing ideas about how to make the new light rail line more inviting: party trains, puzzles and massage chairs on platforms, edible gardens (“If you see a mint plant, you could grab some, put it in your drink and keep going”).
“I’m trying to bring joy and happiness and fun to the project,” she said.
Beckwith said the new line could be completed by 2029.
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Hennepin County — not the Met Council — hired the U of M’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs to convene the working group.