Facing an anemic business climate in north Minneapolis, leaders have now put their hopes in a new economic development strategy: streetcars.

City leaders are confronting the possibility that a major light-rail line being explored by Hennepin County may bypass most of north Minneapolis. So the City Council voted this week to pressure the project's backers to build streetcar lines or other transit improvements in the city's poorest quadrant.

City Council Member Don Samuels envisions streetcar rails embedded in the pavement along West Broadway, returning vitality to the North Side's struggling commercial corridor.

"We have need for something significant, a significant boost of opportunity for the North Side that is going to really quantifiably change things," said Samuels, who noted that retailers are still "shying away" from the area.

"If you put that thing down, this is really a statement of investment by the government and it's a proven economic engine," Samuels said.

The transit improvements would be tied to the Bottineau line, a plan to connect downtown Minneapolis with the northwestern suburbs via light rail or a dedicated busway.

Local leaders originally hoped Bottineau would make the trip through the heart of the North Side. But months of analysis and discussion have left city officials with two distasteful alternatives: largely bypassing north Minneapolis via Olson Memorial Highway or ripping up large portions of Penn Avenue, a residential corridor that may never recover.

"They kind of gave us two routes and neither of them are good enough for the neighborhood," said Erin Jerabek with the West Broadway Business and Area Coalition. Jerabek said that commercial vacancy is about 25 percent on West Broadway, though it reaches 44 percent in the area hit by last May's tornado.

West Broadway contains some of the area's busiest commercial nodes, but vacant and dilapidated storefronts nonetheless pepper blocks along the winding avenue that stretches from the Mississippi River to Robbinsdale. The tornado's effect on business can still be seen on Penn Avenue and Broadway, where someone has spray-painted "North Side Tornado Survivors" on the boards covering the windows of Broadway Liquor Outlet.

Need for transit

Perhaps no area in Minneapolis relies on transit more than the North Side. A Hennepin County report regarding the Bottineau project said that half of households in some parts of the neighborhood don't have a car.

Kenya McKnight, a local activist who serves on the Met Council's Transportation Advisory Board, said that despite high bus ridership, bus stops in north Minneapolis are being taken away and shelters are not being improved.

"Over the past decade or so -- even longer -- we have not had equitable transit investments," McKnight said.

While Samuels has pushed for streetcars connecting to the Bottineau line, it's not the only North Side transit improvement the city wants regional leaders to consider. Other possibilities include using a variety of methods to overhaul bus service. But for some, rails in the ground send a much stronger message.

"Rail vs. bus alignment are, in the eyes of a developer, night and day," said Raymond Dehn, co-facilitator of the Northside Transportation Network, a group that has been organizing community meetings about the Bottineau project,

David Dixon, a consultant with the Boston firm Goody Clancy, recently completed a study of a streetcar system in Washington, D.C., which concluded it would bring a significant economic boost. He said developers prefer them over buses because they worry bus service might be cut the next time there is a funding crisis.

"If the goal is to bring investment into an area, particularly in bricks and mortar ... there's a whole lot of national evidence that says that rail makes a profound difference," Dixon said.

Other partners

Streetcars last rolled down West Broadway more than 60 years ago. Modern streetcars are already under consideration elsewhere in Minneapolis -- the city is using federal funds to study putting them on Central and Nicollet avenues -- but tying it to the Bottineau plan would bring in money from regional partners such as Hennepin County and the Met Council. The federal government is also expected to fund a large chunk of the plan.

In 2007, the city estimated that a West Broadway streetcar line would cost $154 million.

Gary Cunningham, who represents Minneapolis on the Met Council, said there appears to be some interest among his colleagues in exploring the North Side transit options.

"When Don [Samuels] and I talked about streetcars on Broadway, I got goose pimples," Cunningham said. "And I got goose pimples because I could see that as a major turnaround for that community."

Mayor R.T. Rybak said he learned a lesson when planners behind the Southwest Transitway -- a light-rail route expected to open in 2017 -- decided to bypass Uptown. They claimed they were "interested" in streetcars along the Midtown Greenway, but made no commitment.

"We need to say to folks that if the idea is to have light rail skirt the city, there needs to be a commitment from the county and Metro Transit and other partners to tie that with transit improvements [in the North Side] that really do help right now," Rybak said.

A lot of work remains before the Bottineau line opens, possibly in 2018. Regional backers are still in the drafting phase of their environmental review application, and must decide the final route and whether it will feature buses or trains.

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732 Twitter: @StribRoper