The idea of establishing a streetcar or "enhanced bus" corridor along Nicollet Avenue through downtown Minneapolis and up Central Avenue NE. is drawing residents to open houses where city planners are asking for opinions.

Minneapolis city planners carrying out the "Nicollet-Central Transit Alternatives Study" want to know which mode of transit people would most like to see -- fixed-rail streetcars such as those in Portland, Ore., and Seattle? Or perhaps "fancy" buses that mix with traffic, like those found in Boston and Kansas City? The first open houses were held Sept. 26-27; the next ones will be in winter or spring of 2013.

Open houses are an early step to possible federal funding for a streetcar/bus line in a city once renowned for a privately built and owned streetcar network. That system, from White Bear Lake in the east to Lake Minnetonka in the west, made the Twin Cities the envy of the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- until it was displaced by the automobile.

Real estate development goes hand-in-hand with transit improvements -- a relationship that's currently being demonstrated by the $957 million Central Corridor light-rail project. The Metropolitan Council says so far that project has spawned almost 40 commercial/retail and housing developments and 5,100 units of new housing along its route between the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Development also is happening along the eight-year-old Hiawatha light-rail line, where 2,000 apartment units have been constructed south of downtown since its 2004 launch.

But would a Nicollet-Central streetcar or enhanced bus line trigger a similar boom in development? City officials hope so. But at least one prominent local developer is skeptical the pieces would be in place to make it happen.

David Frank, the city's transit-oriented development manager, said: "Broadly speaking, the hope is that while this is a 'transit improvement,' if you read between the lines, you can see that there's the hope that there's a significant amount of real estate investment that could follow a potential public investment in fixed-rail, streetcar service along Northeast Central and Nicollet Avenues." The corridor being studied extends from the 46th Street/Interstate 35W transit station and Nicollet Avenue on the south, along the Nicollet Mall through downtown Minneapolis and then north via Central Avenue to the transit station in downtown Columbia Heights.

It would link some of the city's most popular amenities -- the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, "Eat Street" restaurant district on Nicollet, Minneapolis Convention Center, central business district, East Hennepin entertainment area and Northeast Minneapolis arts district. 

It also touches many of the city's most densely populated neighborhoods and was chosen as an early candidate for an enhanced transit route because the current Metro Transit buses that serve it -- Routes 18 and 10 -- are among the busiest in the Twin Cities. Thus, it could be an ideal setting to promote the city's goal of fostering more dense transit-oriented housing and commercial projects, Frank said. 

The flip side, however, is that much of the current land use along the route is for single-family homes, all but assuring opposition from neighbors to any wholesale development changes brought about by an enhanced transit line. 

"There's a balance to be struck between what existing neighbors and existing businesses think of as the fabulous character of their neighborhoods [and] the desire of the public to grow the property tax base," Frank admitted.

Veteran Minneapolis developer Michael Lander agreed the idea holds much promise. 

"The short story is a streetcar on Nicollet Avenue could have tremendous development potential -- if it's a fixed-rail line, which really secures the physical place," he said. 

But he's less certain the city has the political will to fight the neighborhood battles needed to accomplish the rezonings necessary.

"If you look at the Hiawatha Corridor, it's 10 years old and they still have not actually zoned most of that property for what they say they're going to do with it in the comprehensive plan," Lander said. "The ... plan says it's going to be medium- and high-density transit-oriented development, but it you look at the zoning map you'll find that most of those areas along Hiawatha are still zoned R-1, single-family residential. It's one thing to talk about the potential and another thing to realize it and actually make it happen."

Don Jacobson is a St. Paul-based freelance writer.