Northsiders divided over light rail impacts

Photo by Henry Pan

Metro Transit may try once again to build light rail through Minneapolis’ North Side, but some businesses—and transit riders—aren’t necessarily onboard. 

The Blue Line Light Rail extension project, formerly known as the Bottineau light rail project, is proposed to extend today’s Blue Line—which now runs from Target Field station to Mall of America—12 miles north to Brooklyn Park, with stops in Crystal, Robbinsdale and Minneapolis along the way. 

The County has long envisioned the plan to connect some of its most diverse communities to job opportunities. 

It’s not the first time the County and regional planners have tried to run a light rail through the North Side. They had previously considered running it down either Penn Ave. and West Broadway or on Olson and along a Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad corridor a decade ago. 

They opted for the latter because building on Penn Ave. would mean tearing homes down. But planners decided to bring it back to North Minneapolis because not only were they unable to reach an agreement with the railroad, but the new alignment would also serve a lot more people. 

It also builds on efforts led by former Met Councilmember Gary Cunningham and former City Councilmember Don Samuels to build a streetcar down West Broadway. Samuels is now running for Congress against Rep. Ilhan Omar.

“[Light rail] serves as the backbone for our transit system,” said project spokesperson Trevor Roy in an email. “The METRO Blue Line Extension is a once-in-a-generation investment that will connect people to education, health care, employment, entertainment and opportunity.”

After the Met Council gave up on reaching an agreement with BNSF, who wasn’t interested in negotiating, the County and the Met Council evaluated several alternative routes through the North Side last year. In addition to West Broadway and Lyndale, they considered running it down Lowry Avenue to either Washington Ave. or I-94.

Some business owners are skeptical about who the project is for. Studies conducted in the past by the National Association of Realtors, the American Public Transit Association, and the University of Minnesota, have found that rents and property values increase after light rail is built. 

This happened with properties along Olson Memorial Highway, says KB Brown, who owns Wolfpack Promotionals on West Broadway. “And the ones that were renting over there, the rents went up so much they couldn’t pay it. So they left.”

KB Brown, owner of Wolfpack Promotionals

Some landowners and businesses may also have part of their land taken from them. According to maps produced by the County and the Met Council and obtained by the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, at a minimum, building the light rail may require partial eminent domain of the Cub Foods’ parking lot at Lyndale and West Broadway. 

Also, two of the three alternative routings involve building either a new street or a light rail line through the Minneapolis Public Schools headquarters’ parking lot, as well as through homes on 21st Ave. between Girard and Irving. 

This has transit riders and longtime Northsiders like Lorraine Smith worried about gentrification. “Who is [the light rail] for? Is it for the community that’s already there, or are you preparing it for the community that you want it for?” asked Smith as she rode the 14 home from downtown. 

Nicole Jackson, another Northsider, agrees. “They’re gonna take people’s homes out, and I don’t want that,” said Jackson as she waited for the 724 at Starlite Transit Center, where the Blue Line will run.

If the project is built, during and after construction people may have to walk up to a quarter-mile just to cross the street, like on University after the Green Line was built. The County may also remove parking and left turns and reduce traffic lanes to one in each direction. 

“I’m not interested in the project going down West Broadway at all,” said Lisa Spicer, who owns Dimensions in Hair on West Broadway. “You know, there’s already a lack of parking. It’s going to narrow the lanes. This is a main thoroughfare from the suburbs to downtown, and it’s just, it’s going to be hectic.” 

She and other business owners are worried about their fate, given how many Black-owned businesses on University closed because they could not survive Green Line construction. 

“Some people in the community are referring to the light rail as the Northside 94 Rondo,” said Brown. “It’s literally the last stand for the Black community.” 

Foes of the extension may have an ally at the legislature. Rep. John Petersburg, (R-Waseca), introduced a failed amendment to kill the extension, citing ongoing problems with constructing the Southwest light-rail line, the Green Line extension from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie via St. Louis Park, Hopkins and Minnetonka. 

The Southwest project, which will now cost $2.75 billion, has been partly blamed for causing structural cracks in condominiums converted from grain silos adjacent to the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes and may not open until 2027. 

KB Brown, owner of Wolfpack Promotionals
Photos by Henry Pan

But Brown says he does not yet support or oppose the project. What he and some businesses, such as Spicer’s Dimensions in Hair, want to see is some form of mitigation, such as compensation. Brown also wants access to vacant buildings on West Broadway owned by the City and County. 

“Prioritize small Black developers developing these [buildings] so that we can have places where these business owners can go,” said Brown. “I would suggest they start the process immediately.”

Kyle Mianulli, spokesperson for Hennepin County’s Economic Development department, is aware how important it is to have anti-displacement measures in place. So, they contracted with the University of Minnesota Center for Urban and Regional Affairs to facilitate an “anti-displacement working group,” which Brown is a part of to devise displacement mitigation recommendations.

The Center for Urban and Regional Affairs did not respond to requests for comment. 

Still, some businesses, such as TMJ Nails owner Tina Duong, like the idea and think it can’t come soon enough. “We live in Brooklyn Park, so we’d love to catch the train to go to work. Easier than driving a car,” Duong said while decorating the nails of a customer, adding she may retire by the time the extension opens. 

Same with Gwen Johnson, who also lives in Brooklyn Park. “I won’t have to catch bus after bus after bus [to get to the Mall of America]. Bring it on, be quick—don’t wait until 2028,” she said while waiting for the 724 at Starlite Transit Center.

Bringing the Blue Line down West Broadway instead of Olson may affect other transit projects. Metro Transit isn’t sure if it will move the C Line to Glenwood as it planned as early as 2016. They plan to decide after the County and Met Council formally decide the final Blue Line alignment. They are also studying a rapid bus line running to Medina in western Hennepin County that could make stops on Olson. 

The Met Council is accepting feedback on the Blue Line route until May 18. Comments may be emailed to Kjerstin.Yager[at]metrotransit.org, submitted on an online form www.surveymonkey.com/r/RYMV3LT or mailed to: LRT Project Office, Park Place West Building, Suite 500, 6465 Wayzata Blvd., St. Louis Park, MN 55426.

One Comment on “Northsiders divided over light rail impacts”

  1. They should elevate these trains. Put them on a platform that runs above the street level, that way the customer parking for businesses in this West Broadway corridor will not be affected so much. The cars can still park on the curbs and the drivers can still drive in that corridor, beneath the elevated train system.

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