On Saturday, the University of Minnesota Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA) convened the first of four workgroup meetings to decide how the Metropolitan Council and Hennepin County can ensure the community stays whole during and after the Blue Line is built.
Staying whole, according to business owners and local residents, means being able to stay where they live, as well as being able to prosper at the same level that they do now.
The first meeting, which was tense at times, involved presenting research on how light rail projects have affected surrounding communities, as well as government partners discussing how they tried to mitigate displacement and support businesses during past light rail construction.
Committee members also received updates about what work the Met Council, Hennepin County, and CURA have done to develop anti-displacement efforts.
Ed Goetz, director of CURA, presented research about how light rail affected surrounding property values. He found property values tended to increase in areas closest to the stations and decreased when they were adjacent to the tracks but not a station. “[The] property value [of a home next to light rail tracks] actually declined a little bit because you had this noisy rail line go by but you didn’t have any of the benefits of access to the station,” said Goetz.
For the existing Blue Line, Goetz found the only homes that were affected were on the west side of the line, between Cedar-Riverside and 50th Street. “There was Highway 55 and the grain silos, which sort of interrupted the impact of the line itself,” said Goetz.
On the Green Line, Goetz and his team found the number of people of color living along it decreased after the Met Council reached a funding agreement with the Federal Transit Administration to build it. It also found median incomes increased.
Nichole Buehler, who serves on the committee, mentioned the presence of a light rail doesn’t necessarily need to be in place for property values to change. “We saw a property value increase of 60% [in the two years since the Blue Line extension was announced]. We saw speculators moving in … slap a coat of paint on them, and jack up rents by $300 overnight,” said Buehler. “So we lost hundreds of residents from displacement from a train that was not yet built and it’s now not going to be built.”
Buehler runs the Harrison Neighborhood Association, which is part of a coalition that recently asked the Met Council to stop the project until concrete anti-displacement measures are in place, which includes $300 million in funding.
The Met Council says they cannot wait for the measures to be in place. “That’s an impossibility for us. That will probably take us out of the federal queue, and if that happens, no more project,” said project spokesperson Trevor Roy in a phone call during a break in the meeting.
Some of the anti-displacement measures lobbied for by the coalition were presented in depth by Tram (pronounced Trom) Hoang (the A is pronounced like a soft O) of the Housing Justice Center.
They included reforming tenant screenings, requiring reasons for landlords to evict tenants, separating land from housing values, stabilizing rent, requiring developers to deliver public benefits, requiring landlords to pay for relocation, restricting the growth of corporate landlords, adjusting affordability thresholds reflecting local communities instead of the entire region, and giving tenants first dibs on buying their home they rent.
At the end of the day, however, some people may not consider property values increasing a bad thing, said Met Councilmember Reva Chamblis, who represents Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park, Osseo, Champlin, Columbia Heights, Hilltop, Fridley, and Spring Lake Park.
“For many people, they want their property values to rise over time. But they also want to make sure that they keep good-paying jobs, and have opportunities to get good-paying jobs so that if their property values rise over time, they’re able to retain the same standard of living in the same place that they choose to live,” said Chambliss in a phone call shortly after the meeting ended.
Mitigating impacts on businesses
Dan Soler of Hennepin County said they tried to mitigate impacts of Green Line construction in the past. But they found it challenging to work with the contractor. “When you’re working with contractors, they believe you just walk in [to a business] through the mud, through the dirt, over these rocks, around these cones, past this equipment, and that’s adequate access,” said Soler.
So Soler and his team decided to specify, in detail, what contractors would have to do and provide an incentive payment if they did a good job. That also ran into problems, said Soler. “Contractors did not see that as an incentive payment. They saw that as ‘If I do my job, I will get that money.’”
Mike Temali, who works at the Neighborhood Development Center, hired culturally competent, business-savvy outreach workers to offer branding services for businesses affected by Green Line construction.
“We built our websites, social media presence, [point-of-sale] systems so they can [attract customers] because you got to get customers … into your store, right? Because it’s like a warzone out there,” said Temali, who adds only four businesses closed because of the project.
CURA reported they had trouble reaching small businesses of color in getting them involved in anti-displacement efforts. KB Brown, who owns Wolfpack Promotionals on West Broadway, suggested they were not being sincere.
“The reason that you’re having an issue … with communication is because Northside[rs], we don’t trust strangers. Why? Because we’ve always only had us,” said Brown. “When you’re reaching out to people, you know, they don’t know where… you’re coming from with it. They think that you’re for it.”
First of several votes
After concluding its public comment period on realigning the Blue Line extension to Brooklyn Park via West Broadway on May 27, two Metropolitan Council committees advising on its design and construction voted this week to advance the alignment. Now the full Met Council and the Hennepin County Board will decide.
The Met Council said it received 1100 comments, some of which were in support, and some opposed. “Some of [the comments] were just, ‘you know, I would like to see the project routed this way, or I would like to see a station here,’” said Roy.
View comments to the Route Modification Report by going here.
Henry Pan is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.