Public investment along 11-mile light-rail line is yielding mixed results so far
Long before the first piece of track was laid, the billion-dollar Green Line linking the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul was envisioned not just as a train ride, but as an engine for growth in the neighborhoods it rumbled through.
And at least $80 million in taxpayer money has been invested over the past eight years to see that it happens.
“It always had to be about the community that you could create along the line,” said St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. “In many ways, we have the most planned line in the country, in terms of the surrounding development that would occur.”
Now with the line’s opening just two weeks away, mixed results are raising concerns about whether the public investment will meet the goals of improving the economic bottom line for the cities and the quality of life for residents nearby.
The Metropolitan Council, the regional planning agency that built the line, and local government officials claim that the public spending has stoked $2.5 billion in projects constructed, underway or planned within a half-mile of the 11-mile route that stretches from Union Depot in St. Paul, through the neighborhoods along University Avenue and into downtown Minneapolis.
Yet much of that $2.5 billion includes housing, retail and other projects that likely would have gone up anyway. They include the $243 million publicly funded renovation of Union Depot, the boom in private student housing at the University of Minnesota, Ryan Companies’ $400 million mixed-use project tied to the new Minnesota Vikings stadium and other developments in prime downtown Minneapolis spots where the Blue Line has been operating for 10 years.
Most of the $80 million or more in public money dedicated to development along the Green Line has been committed to housing, office and retail projects along a critical 7-mile stretch from the eastern edge of Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul.
Yet despite millions spent in an already poor 2-mile strip from Hamline to Western avenues in St. Paul’s Midway district — most of it on low- and moderate-income housing — blocks appear largely unchanged: vacant storefronts and old clapboard houses are scattered among ethnic restaurants and small businesses that survived construction with the help of grants from the city.
“We’re hoping that these affordable housing projects are seeding the market … and hopefully will attract more private investments along the corridor,” St. Paul planning director Donna Drummond said.
Contrasts along the corridor
The progress can be hard to gauge simply by eyeballing the area along the Green Line, also known as the Central Corridor.
Most changes in downtown St. Paul are hidden behind the classical facades of former office buildings that have been converted into mostly market-rate apartments and lofts with the aid of government funds.
An example is the Lofts at Farmers Market, where the Met Council helped fund the development of 58 luxury apartments for rent at market rates. Then there is the new Penfield apartment complex, rescued by the city when the market crashed, which includes a grocery store recently opened by Lunds.
At the other end of town, the area west of Fairview Avenue displays impressive redevelopments such as the C&E Lofts, Habitat for Humanity’s sleek new olive-colored headquarters and Episcopal Homes’ Midway Village senior housing complex, under construction beneath yellow fiberglass sheathing.
The Met Council says it doesn’t track all sources of public spending related to the line. Still, the agency’s available figures illustrate the government’s development priorities.
The affluent neighborhoods along the route, near each city’s downtown, are scoring public funding for mostly market-rate apartments and lofts. The agency gave a developer and Minneapolis $2.7 million to help build 250 apartments — 80 percent at market rates — on the former Boeser manufacturing site in the Prospect Park neighborhood. Nearby, Minneapolis got more than a half-million dollars from the Met Council to help the Surly Brewing Co. build a new brewery.
The central and eastern parts of the Midway district — located in the less dense and lower-income middle stretch of the line — have received the biggest concentration of new government-backed low- and moderate-income housing.
One of the biggest projects set to break ground this year will feature twin four-story buildings at University and Hamline avenues, developed by the nonprofit Project for Pride in Living and a private partner. The complex will offer 108 rental units, all affordable.