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Central Corridor: Relief — and optimism — as LRT construction winds down

As the building phase of the Central Corridor line finishes up, it’s becoming clear that the direst predictions of business disruption didn’t materialize.

The people in charge of the construction of the Central Corridor light-rail transit line have an important message for business owners and customers along the 11-mile corridor: You can exhale now.

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“The dirty, noisy part is done,” said Laura Baenen, communications manager at the Central Corridor Project Office of the Metropolitan Council. “From here, we’ll mostly have crews working in the medians, causing only temporary lane shifts.”

Following a fraught two-year period in which project organizers got used to a chorus of complaints from drivers and merchants, the tone of the conversation has shifted as occupants of the corridor have survived amid the construction-related turmoil — and are relishing the boom in traffic to come when the so-called Green Line starts running in mid-2014.

‘The narrative has changed’

The Line

“The narrative has definitely changed,” said Jonathan Sage-Martinson, executive director of the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative. “It’s not all roses yet for the business owners who were interrupted by construction, but the immediate disruption is over. They’re getting used to the new normal.”

As construction of the $957 million Green Line got under way in 2011, the loudest critics of the project were business owners along University Avenue, who said parking and traffic disruptions during construction of the line are threatened to put them out of business.

hatzis portrait
Photo by Bill Kelley
Mike Hatzis co-owns The Best Steak House on University.

“It was very hard,” said Mike Hatzis, co-owner of The Best Steak House at 860 University Ave. W. “When there’s no access to your property, people won’t come.”

And indeed, some businesses did succumb during the construction phase, whether or not project-related interruptions were to blame: Of the 1,400 retail and nonretail businesses on corridor, 78 have closed since March 2011 and 26 have moved off the corridor. But in the glass-half-full category, 102 new businesses have opened during that time, and 23 moved to a different location along the corridor.

One business that moved onto the corridor a year ago did so with the confidence that the ongoing construction wouldn’t have a dramatic effect. Momentum Design Group, an architectural firm, moved from Hopkins to 2935 University Ave. W. in March 2012, and architect Jeff Wrede said that, partly due to how the firm does its business, the ride hasn’t been bumpy at all.

“We knew that we’d be dealing with some construction, but since we’re an office and not a retail space, we hoped we wouldn’t really be affected by that,” Wrede said. “We like the vitality of being on a light rail line.”

Relief at last

Baenen said she’s gotten calls and emails from other business on the corridor expressing relief that the worst is over — the owners of Cheng Heng restaurant at 448 University Ave. W. let her know that it showed a profit in January for the first time since construction started.

chengheng restaurant
Photo by Bill Kelley
The owners of Cheng Heng restaurant at 448 University Ave. W. showed a profit in January for the first
time since construction started.

“Since the end of 2012, the message has been, “‘No reason to fear that you won’t get through — the lanes are open and the streets are paved,’” said Baenen.

Hatzis said the period when construction was going on right outside his door was certainly difficult, but that the restaurant was able to weather the storm better than he’d hoped.

“Things are back to normal again,” he said. “We’re doing really well. Even during construction, it was really only a period of about two months when it was really bad. After that it was OK.”

Opponents rethink the line

Even some civic organizations who fought light-rail construction have softened their view–or at least found ways to roll with the flow, according to Sage-Martinson. The Asian Economic Development Association, which encouraged businesses in the portion of the corridor just west of the capitol to post signs protesting the project, is now focused on promoting the “Little Mekong” retail and dining district at Western and University avenues in anticipation of a post-completion boom in traffic.

And the Aurora-St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation was a party to federal lawsuit to halt construction while business mitigation efforts were being studied, but now is teaming with a private developer to propose a retail/housing project at the Old Home Building at Western and University avenues.

“I don’t think they would necessarily see themselves going from no to yes, but they are taking advantage of the opportunities that are coming,” said Sage-Martinson.

Ninety percent and counting

light rail station
Photo by Bill Kelley
The construction phase of the Green Line project recently
passed the 90 percent mark.

The construction phase of the Green Line project recently passed the 90 percent mark, with the remainder of the work consisting of such relatively quiet tasks as stringing overhead and underground electrical cabling, testing light-rail cars and installing artwork at stops. To now, 10 miles of roads and sidewalks have been rebuilt, 10 miles of double track installed, and 18 stations structurally completed.

One encouraging factor during construction has been the bullishness of developers who want to establish a presence along the Central Corridor. More than $1.2 billion in development has taken place along the corridor, according to the Met Council. Last year, 18 residential and commercial/retail developments worth more than $275 million were either planned or broke ground, including almost 2,300 housing units and more than 109,000 square feet of commercial/retail space, following $944 million in similar projects planned or begun in 2011. This year should see about 18 more such projects along the Green Line.

The challenge for project organizers now is to re-train their constituents: The business owners who occupy the corridor and the folks who’ll be using it. For future riders, that means getting used to being extra vigilant about staying clear of the track and learning to use mid-block crossings; for drivers, it means becoming accustomed to a significant increase in pedestrian traffic.

And for business owners, that means a period of limbo in which their shops are more accessible than they’ve been since before construction started, but the influx of traffic accompanying a functioning Green Line is still a year away.

“The challenge for businesses will be this funny period before they have passengers,” said Sage-Martinson. “They will be settling into a new way of business without the attention that the opening of the line will bring.”

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.