On June 14th decades of planning, years of engineering, and two seasons of major construction culminated in the launch of the Green Line (formerly known as the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit project).
Linking the downtowns of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, the 11-mile Light Rail Transit (LRT) project, travels primarily on University Avenue through some of Saint Paul’s most diverse neighborhoods and into Minneapolis where it passes the University of Minnesota and terminates at Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins.
This billion dollar infrastructure project has always been about so much more than the tracks and trains. Living Cities recognized this as an early investor in the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative (CCFC) – a group of 12 local and national funders seeking to create benefits “beyond the rail” for residents, businesses, and neighborhoods. They followed up their CCFC investment by selecting Corridors of Opportunity as one of five Integration Initiative sites in its inaugural round. This regional partnership invested in projects to advance equitable transit-focused growth in the Green Line and multiple other transitways in the region.
I’ve had the privilege to be part of this journey for the past seven years as a resident, consultant, partner, and funder – and here are a couple of my reflections.
Policy is Personal
In 2007, residents were questioning the station spacing along the eastern end of the line – where the train was only slated to stop at one-mile intervals through the city’s most transit-dependent neighborhoods. The primary reason for this was a federal Cost Effectiveness criterion- a pass-fail measure that focused on the travel hours saved by projected passengers and trumped all other criteria for Federal Transit Administration (FTA) project funding. Just two years earlier, when I was a policy analyst at the USEPA, our team was building a case that this criterion was penalizing smaller urban areas, basically requiring them to find ways to speed travel through the city. Fast forward, I’m consulting for a coalition of neighborhoods in order to make the case for additional stations using data and research, and am struck again by how a federal policy plays out on the ground. Fortunately in the Twin Cities, this didn’t stop the talented and persistent Stops for Us campaign who championed the stations locally and all the way to DC. The result: The Green Line experience led to overturning a flawed policy in 2010 and the Hamline, Victoria, and Western stations are now serving riders. If ever a small group of people changed the world….
Weathering the Storm – Together
Fear is the first emotion that comes to mind when I think about 2010-2012. What had been a planning exercise for years, was about to become a major construction project – which for the hundreds of small, mostly minority and immigrant-owned businesses along the line was a daunting prospect indeed. The story and details have been told many places – most recently by the Minneapolis Fed – but for me the “Prepare, Survive, Thrive” strategy devised by the Central Corridor Business Resources Collaborative (a group of business and community organizations, government and philanthropy) remains an inspiration for strategic collective action. During the two years of heavy construction a diverse team of business specialists, fluent in many of the languages spoken on the corridor, provided a mix of marketing and business planning assistance, low or zero interest loan products, and a voice for small often minority or immigrant owned businesses. The result: Of the nearly 400 businesses assisted during this time period, 99% remained in business.
Investing today for tomorrow
In places across the country, the introduction of LRT has often led to increased property values and rents. For the Green Line to be successful, members of Central Corridor Funders Collaborative and the Corridors of Opportunity (CoO) initiative wanted to ensure that low and moderate-income residents could still afford to live in the adjacent neighborhoods. The Big Picture Project partners set a goal of creating or preserving 4,500 affordable units along the corridor by 2020. The Living Cities-backed CoO loan fund invested $4.4 million in five multi-family/mixed use projects along the Green Line, which is slated to produce 483 units of housing, 67% of which are affordable. CoO resources and the Frogtown Rondo Home Fund are also increasing housing stability for homeowners and turning vacant lots and foreclosed homes into wealth-producing assets for area residents. The results: In May, the Big Picture Project released its first progress report which found that, 2,076 new and preserved units have been created, with 545 units in the pipeline. At this pace, 346 units are needed annually to meet the goal of 4,500 units by 2020, which many believe can be achieved.
One Corridor - Five Continents
Seven years ago on my now-defunct blog about the hidden gems of the Twin Cities, I penned a piece called an “Ode to University Avenue: Part 1” (I never seemed to get around to Part 2), which likened this auto-oriented arterial to the historic “El Camino Real - rather than linking missions, presidios, and peublos, it connects Hmong and Somali neighbors; African-Americans and old school St. Paul Irish; the State Capitol and the Turf Club; the U of M and the Love Doctor.” Now, the Green Line runs down University Avenue, allowing many more to experience the incredible diversity of place, spaces, people, and cuisines along the corridor. The Central Corridor as Cultural Corridor is bringing people to the corridor over the summer and fall months to highlight the arts and culture in the area. The Little Mekong district has launched a series of Night Markets this summer, introducing Twin Citians to the traditional Asian experience of food, entertainment, and vendors under a twilight sky.
Keeping the momentum and promise
With six weeks under its belt, the Green Line is exceeding ridership expectations and more than $2.5 billion in commercial and residential development has occurred near the line. But since this story has never just been about the rail, I’m struck by a recent article from Insight News, where Dr. Beverley Oliver Hawkins, CEO of the community development organization Model Cities, says:
"I smile to myself when I see all of the faces and ages at the Victoria Station. There's a lot of diversity – some in suits, some in shorts, some with babies, some senior citizens. I see it every day; many new faces coming here, some just out of curiosity. Now, we just need to give people reasons to get off at these stations and visit our businesses."
Her quote highlights the opportunities that remain now that Green Line is operational. There are local assets to showcase and strengthen, jobs to create, and projects to develop. In two years when the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative sunsets, we want to see a Green Line where businesses are healthy, residents can find and reach work more easily, low and moderate-income residents can afford to live here, and that high-quality investments continue to be made in this important corridor.
Mary Kay Bailey is the project director for the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative and the Partnership for Regional Opportunity/Corridors of Opportunity initiative at the Saint Paul Foundation. Mary Kay directs the operations of these cross-sector initiatives to support development in the region’s transitways that benefit people of all incomes and backgrounds. She initiates program activities for the working groups, boards, and other partners and has sought, reviewed, and recommended investment opportunities for both initiatives.