The crossroads of the Twin Cities is at a crossroads.
The western end of University Avenue in St. Paul, where it meets the Minneapolis border, has long been considered by many to be the geographic center of the region. It's an amalgam of arts, industries, housing, services and transportation.
Those things have coexisted for decades, but the coming of the Central Corridor light-rail line down the middle of University is bringing some tensions to light. Will artists be forced to move because of rising property values? Will new city land-use rules stifle business expansion? Will there still be room for manufacturing jobs? Will the neighborhood lose its character?
"We don't know exactly how it's going to feel when the train is rolling down the middle of the road," said Amy Sparks, executive director of the St. Anthony Park Community Council. "Light rail has definitely forced progress and change."
Anticipating changes, people from various interests have been working together to figure out how to preserve the neighborhood while encouraging new development. The area has some of St. Paul's most valuable land, thousands of jobs, hundreds of artists, small businesses and nonprofits, and accessibility to many major thoroughfares.
One group is looking at the area as a "Creative Enterprise Zone" to figure out how the arts community can remain and thrive. Another group, the West Midway Task Force, is looking at business and jobs. The city is considering changes to its zoning code to encourage more mixed-use, high-density development along the light-rail line.
"There are great arguments on all sides of this," said Jon Commers, a member of the city's Planning Commission who is working on the West Midway study.
The area began as a rail transfer yard in the late 1800s, and the freight industry boomed. Accompanying businesses built up, and as time went on trucking and distribution joined the scene. A streetcar ran down University during the first half of the 1900s before being replaced by buses.
Now rail transit is set to return. Crews are expected to rip up the western-most part of University in March to accommodate the 11-mile Central Corridor line. It's a $957 million project that has been in planning stages for years. The line is lauded by some, lamented by others; its purpose is to move people and spur an economic rebirth along the way.
About 22,000 people work at more than 1,200 companies in the area, according to city reports. The biggest employers are business service firms and wholesalers.
There also are 101 nonprofits within one-half mile of the planned Raymond Avenue light-rail station alone.
City Council Member Russ Stark said it will be important to find a way to balance traditional industries with emerging ones. He said some of the larger old buildings could be used more efficiently to get more jobs into them. Some buildings will need to be razed to make way for more modern development.
But the way the city controls land use is raising concerns among many existing business owners. Several spoke up recently against proposed zoning changes at a crowded Planning Commission meeting. The land-use changes were prompted by the Central Corridor and aim to bring in taller buildings and more people and reduce auto-oriented businesses. Businesses owners are afraid the changes could hamper expansion.
Kari Canfield, president of the Midway Chamber of Commerce, said the diversity of businesses in the area should be maintained.
Artists showed up about 30 years ago to take up cheap space in old buildings. The numbers grew, and many in the area have been making a living through their art for years.
Catherine Reid Day, a visual and media artist who is leading the arts task force, said artists shouldn't be overlooked as productive businesspeople. She points to the business she created, Storyslices, which grew out of her art. She said there are a number of artists who are doing international business from spaces in warehouses.
One building that has provided artist work space, the Chittenden-Eastman, recently changed hands and will be converted to housing.
Dan Mackerman, a painter/sculptor who has had space in the building for 20 years, laments the change. If artists don't own the real estate, he said, they're at the mercy of the marketplace and a landlord's desire for profits.
The change of the Chittenden-Eastman is seen by some as foreshadowing. After all, similar things happened in the Minneapolis Warehouse District and in other cities when new money came in and forced artists out.
Stark said it's critical to keep the creative vibe, but he predicts artists will need to move a block or more off University.
"There's a window of opportunity where we can get some things established to benefit people already in the area and for the neighborhood in the future," he said.
Chris Havens • 612-673-4148