Brian and Natalie Durk's printing business in St. Paul had been mostly online until a month ago, when they moved Dick & Jane Letterpress from around back to a storefront right on University Avenue.
Suddenly, they were getting foot traffic, along with the free advertising that comes with cars full of Green Line riders peering at their shop while the train waits for the light at Cromwell Avenue.
"Being on light rail here has given us something we didn't have before — a localized presence," said Brian Durk, 34, whose clients include wedding parties and businesses.
A year after the Green Line opened to great fanfare, ridership numbers are high, travel times have shrunk and small businesses that came in after its construction — like Dick & Jane — now are reaping the benefits of proximity.
But while new projects move forward at the University of Minnesota, downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul, the pace of development continues to be slower along the corridor's most challenged stretch: University Avenue in St. Paul.
The potential for growth was a big reason why the $957 million Green Line was built along University rather than Interstate 94, which would have made for faster commutes. The Metropolitan Council says that the publicly funded line has helped stoke $3 billion in projects built, underway or planned within a half-mile of the 11-mile route.
Of that, about $500 million was generated since the line opened. But as of May, the Met Council reported only two new projects in the last year in St. Paul, compared with eight in downtown Minneapolis.
Just one of the new St. Paul projects is near University Avenue — a $10 million renovation of a former mattress factory by Minneapolis developer Peter Remes of First & First, who plans to make it a center for creative enterprises such as a brewpub and media arts center. The other is Catholic Charities' $100 million shelter expansion, which was moved downtown after neighbors objected to building it on the East Side.
Despite the slow start, St. Paul officials say things are headed in the right direction and that there are already signs of change.
"You have this sense of momentum that I think is critical to getting people to invest in your city that wouldn't otherwise have thought about it," Mayor Chris Coleman said.
Gary Leavitt, St. Paul's transit-oriented development (TOD) manager, said so much is happening "behind the scenes" that he expects "bulldozers on eight to 12 sites by year's end." The Green Line's favorable ridership numbers have become impossible for developers to ignore, he said.
"Nobody wants to be the first person in, but even worse nobody wants to be the last guy in, either," he said.
Getting the message
St. Paul officials say they always figured that significant change on University Avenue would take years. But there are a number of reasons why development there is particularly challenging.
In the years since Interstate 94 displaced University as the major east-west corridor between the cities, scores of big employers fled the avenue. And replacing them takes time.
"That's an area that's essentially been without any development in the last 40 years. So some of these seeds will take longer to germinate," Metro Transit General Manager Brian Lamb said.
Developers, too, are drawn more to downtowns and universities because "you've got lots of riders there," said Lucy Ferguson Galbraith, Metro Transit's TOD director. "So those areas are lower risk for developers."
Another hurdle: St. Paul no longer wants to see suburban-style, big-box projects on University Avenue, even though that's what developers are used to delivering. City officials prefer transit-oriented development — shops and housing more accessible to pedestrians, cyclists and transit users than to car drivers.
Transit-oriented development is at least partly driven by demographic changes. Aging baby boomers may not want to drive so much, or they get to the point where they can't. Many debt-ridden millennials can't afford cars, but don't need them if transit and car-sharing are available.
St. Paul planning director Donna Drummond said developers are starting to get the message, aided by new zoning that pushes parking around back or to the side and puts buildings up against the street. Several housing projects will have underground or ramp parking, including C & E Flats, 2700 University and Hamline Station.
"The Central Corridor development strategy was intended to be a long-term vision over 25, 30 years," she said. "I think it will take that long to fully realize the potential … but we're seeing really positive signs and great new projects."
Stakes are high
So far, low-income housing and nonprofit facilities have dominated overall development on University Avenue's eastern reaches.
Kou Vang, president of JB Realty Co., which owns and leases properties along the avenue, said affordable housing hasn't added much diversity to the area because it concentrates poorer residents in one place.
"We are advocating for a broader mix of market-rate apartments and office users," Vang said.
New development on St. Paul's west end near Hwy. 280, on the other hand, has been more balanced.
"The west side has done a nice job on mixed housing," said Tanya Bell, a principal at Grand Real Estate Advisors in St. Paul.
Among coming projects:
• Developer Jim Stolpestad and the Exeter Group plan to build C & E Flats, 138 market-rate apartments behind the popular C & E Lofts renovation at University and Raymond avenues.
• Aeon, a nonprofit developer of affordable housing, bought the Pirtek building this year at University and Vandalia and may do some kind of mixed-use development there.
• California-based Orton Development Inc., known for retooling industrial sites nationwide, is turning the former Silgan Container building on Prior Avenue into a home for commercial tenants. Its location near Fairview Avenue Station was one reason why Can Can Wonderland decided to plan a space there where artists can perform and exhibit their work, including an artist-designed mini golf course. "It's such a great location, it's so awesome," CEO Jennifer Pennington said.
• St. Paul is seeking development proposals for the former Saxon Ford site, now mostly owned by the city. Ideas include retail-commercial on the avenue, with assisted-living housing in back.
• A private owner is working with city staffers on plans for the former Greyhound site at University and Rice Street.
• Sears is thought to be planning a mixed-use development for its 17-acre retail site near Capitol/Rice Street Station.
• The Met Council plans to issue a request for proposals later this year for its "bus barn" property near University and Snelling avenues, a 15-acre site that might be developed in tandem with the adjacent 20-acre Midway Shopping Center.
Brian McMahon, executive director of University United, a group that has worked for years to make the avenue more transit- and pedestrian-friendly, said that University Avenue has potential that hasn't been realized in years. It's the only shopping district in the Twin Cities that is easily accessible to both downtowns and the U, he said.
"Commercial corridors are the lifeblood of cities, they make or break a city," he said. "So the stakes along University Avenue are very high."
Brian Durk, for one, is confident.
"I'd be willing to bet that a year from now this block will be more colorful and vibrant and more of a destination than it is now," he said.
Staff writer Kristen Leigh Painter contributed to this report.
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