Two different worlds?

By Charles Hallman
Staff Writer

-Chris Harrison illustration

A federal judge last month ordered the Metropolitan Council, Ramsey County and St. Paul to do more listening to community concerns about the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit (CCLRT). After the first of two scheduled meetings last week to address the judge’s ruling, it still remains unclear how much real listening is going on.

U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank ruled “that the [CCLRT] plan was flawed in the beginning,” noted former St. Paul city council member Debbie Montgomery, who was part of a collaboration of Black businesses, nonprofit groups and residents that sued the Met Council, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Transit Administration for not adequately analyzing the project’s potential negative effects on the community, including business interruption during construction and displacement of existing residents and businesses. (See excerpts from the judge’s decision in sidebar at right.)

The plaintiffs identified in the lawsuit were: The Saint Paul Branch of the NAACP, the Community Stabilization Project, the Aurora/Saint Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation, Pilgrim Baptist Church, Shear Pleasure, Inc., Metro Bar & Grill, Inc. (Arnellia’s), Carolyn Brown, Deborah Montgomery, Michael Wright, Leetta Douglas and Gloria Presley Massey.
“Before the lawsuit was filed, [CCLRT planners] kind of ignored us,” said Betty Charles, who has owned and operated a beauty salon, Shear Pleasure, at the same location on University Avenue for 25 years. “People were complaining about parking [or] needing parking, lost revenue [and] needing loans.”

JUST Equity organizer Veronica Burt added that although the court ruling “will produce some help” in mitigating business losses, “We still are trying to push for what we can do for neighborhood mitigation to help maintain affordability and help people stay in this community and strive.” There aren’t a lot of Black businesses on University, “but our point is that we want to keep what we have, and build,” said Burt.

“It’s hard to know for sure what the impact will be,” admitted CCLRT Communications Manager Laura Baenen at one of two meetings that were held February 17 at St. Paul’s Model Cities. Business owners and others met with CCLRT staff on parking mitigation, business loans, and pedestrian and vehicle access to University Avenue during construction. Baenen reported that the sessions were the result of the judge’s ruling.

“Part of the purpose of today’s gathering, and the one we will have in the future, is to hear more from businesses about their concerns about the potential impact of construction on the avenue,” Baenen said.

However, Montgomery, other community members, and University Avenue small business owners told the MSR last week that the Met Council and CCLRT officials still aren’t listening to them. “If they say they are [listening], they’re not,” said Montgomery after the gathering. “They are doing their own thing.”

Several business owners said last week that they fear losing up to 40 percent of their business during construction along University Avenue because customers won’t be able to find parking. “There’s actually a lot of parking on the side streets,” countered Baenen.

(Reporter’s note:  In covering last week’s meeting at Model Cities, located on the corner of University and Victoria, we had to park several blocks away on a side street because Victoria only has one-side parking.)

The University Avenue Betterment Association later pointed out in a press release that 85 percent of current parking — over 900 street parking spaces — will be lost due to construction. The group doesn’t believe that the $1.3 million loan program the City of Saint Paul created for property owners to improve their off-street parking will help. Only two dozen property owners were accepted by the program, and according to the association most have not signed up because of “the difficult terms of the loan.”

Charles says she received a $25,000 “forgivable loan over seven years” from the city program to expand parking, “but I haven’t used my grant because my lot is so small. I wanted a curb cut because I am right at the alley, and I wanted a fence put up [as well].”

According to CCLRT officials, $145 million already has been spent for design, property and construction. Alex Pham, who has owned a restaurant on University Avenue for 20 years, questioned who actually will benefit from the new train, calling the projected $957 million project “a waste of money. “This light rail doesn’t serve anybody — we already have a very good bus system,” he said.

Construction is scheduled to begin next month on the south side of University Avenue “and progress eastward,” predicted Baenen. “Once work is on the south side is done, then we will be starting work on the north side of University. We will keep one lane of traffic each way open throughout this whole spring-summer-fall construction season.”

She compared the upcoming University Avenue construction to what occurred on Lake Street in South Minneapolis several years ago during the Hiawatha Line project. “Lake Street didn’t get a light rail line, but they went through a lot of construction for a long time,” she said.

“All these businesses on University Avenue are where I go for what I need,” said Gordon Parks High School senior Olivia Johnson-Bourne, who attended last week’s meeting with her teacher for a class project.

“We are not shutting down University Avenue — people will be able to get through,” said Baenen.

St. Paul Deputy Human Rights Director Readus Fletcher stated that all CCLRT project partners — “the City, the Met Council, the State — everybody has to pay attention and has to do the best they can to mitigate the damages that are going to come. And there are going to be damages.” He added, “I am in full support of the project and of the great potential that is going to come with it.”

“We take these businesses and their concerns seriously,” said Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter.

“It is a real need for the public stakeholders — the City, County and Met Council — to really put our arms around the businesses and support them during construction,” added St. Paul City Council Member Melvin Carter.

“We are listening and trying to understand” the business owners, said Met Council Chair Susan Haigh.

Nonetheless, some community residents see the light rail project as a clear example of gentrification. “That’s a given — it is going to happen,” said Montgomery.

“I’m a renter,” said Carolyn Brown. “If the taxes go up, and the rent goes up, that is one thing that starts pushing people out of the community. When they get through with revitalizing the whole area, it is going to be like an Uptown area,” she surmised.

“The City of St. Paul is rezoning this whole area to be very complementary towards the [light] rail,” added Burt.

Met Council officials contend that the necessary funding will be there to complete the project. They reported last week that President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2012 budget proposes a total of $245 million for the project in the next two fiscal years.

But Montgomery warned, “The [mainstream] papers and the politicians are trying to make this a slam dunk, but there is nothing to show that this is going to happen. The State has got to come up with some money, and [state legislators] are talking about cutting out some of that transportation money.”

Both supporters and detractors of the Central Corridor project admit that the Central Corridor project eventually will get done. What remains to be seen is who will still be around to enjoy its benefits. “I think that a lot of the small business people really are concerned about if they will survive the construction, and even after the construction,” said Charles.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.