As the Green Line developed, so did the neighborhoods along the light-rail tracks, trumpeting unique assets and new place names amid the chaos of construction:
The Creative Enterprise Zone. Little Africa. Little Mekong. MSP Innovation District.
While construction has long since ended and the Green Line recently marked its two-year anniversary, those newly transit-oriented neighborhoods continue to advertise and bolster the characteristics that set them apart while trying to attract new residents, visitors and businesses.
Many of the efforts to develop strong neighborhood identities were kick-started with funding from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative, a group of foundations that spent the past decade supporting diversity, affordable housing and locally owned businesses along University Avenue, where the Green Line now runs.
The collaborative wrapped up work in June, and Friday was director Mary Kay Bailey’s last day on the job. She said she is optimistic that efforts to create cultural and economic hubs along the Green Line will continue.
“We’re just at a good place for us to step out and to let the organizations and the people that have been actually doing and leading this work for almost 10 years to keep on going,” Bailey said.
But, she added, a variety of challenges remain. While Green Line ridership is beating projections, she said, there needs to be more public awareness about communities along the line in order to turn those riders into customers.
“The more we start building destinations like the Little Mekong Plaza, the more people see it as, ‘Hey, this is a neighborhood, I’m going to get out and explore,’ ” Bailey said.
Creative Enterprise Zone
Community members at the St. Paul Riverfront Corporation’s annual Placemaking Residency, designed to inspire ideas for more urban livability, gathered recently at the stylish and somewhat hidden Forecast Public Art offices.
The nonprofit, which supports artists and publishes the Public Art Review, is located in an unassuming single-story building near the Green Line’s Raymond Avenue stop. It is one of many creative companies — including a screenprinter, boatbuilder and breweries — tucked in an industrial area called the Creative Enterprise Zone.
Unlike some Green Line neighborhoods, such as the eco-friendly MSP Innovation District planned near the Prospect Park station, the Creative Enterprise Zone’s title represents “what’s going on here” already, said Amy Sparks, the zone’s executive director.
The effort to get word out appears to be working. Wilder Foundation researchers divided the Green Line into six segments and found that the segment with the enterprise zone saw the number of jobs jump by 15 percent from 2009 to 2014, the most dramatic increase along the line.
At the Forecast Public Art event, organizers asked the big question now before the community: How can it continue to attract creative businesses and nonprofits but avoid gentrification?
The enterprise zone is in a “sweet spot,” said Shannon Forney, co-owner of Workhorse Coffee Bar in the neighborhood. It is progressive but still accessible and has available warehouse space, she said. Community members need to work with developers to show them the neighborhood’s character, not just its economic opportunities, Forney said.
A tour group and the smell of roasting coffee recently filled Sabrina’s Café and Deli. People attending the tour, organized in June as part of the final meeting of the Funders Collaborative, craned their necks to watch a woman conduct an East African coffee ceremony. The group was surrounded by posters depicting plans for the neighborhood they were exploring: an area by Snelling and University avenues called Little Africa.
The cultural district, launched in 2013, is home to an annual festival, businesses owned by African immigrants and two large murals. It is smaller than Little Mekong and other newly branded neighborhoods along the line, which means community members must work harder to develop it, Bailey said.
“It’s going to take a lot of intentional programming and just really getting the word out,” she said.
Retail has increased in the general area since 2009, according to the Wilder report. But Freweini Sium, who owns Sunshine Beauty Salon, said she hasn’t noticed much growth in local businesses or customers in recent years. Sium said that could change with new funding aimed at sprucing up storefronts.
Community members are working with the St. Paul Riverfront Corporation to raise the neighborhood’s profile by updating facades and making businesses and restaurants more visible to drivers.
“We’re really building something here,” Lula Saleh, an artist-organizer with African Economic Development Solutions, told the tour group as they sipped coffee and ate sambusas. “We really hope you do come back.”
An empty lot filled with mud and cracked gravel sits between Little Szechuan restaurant and the Hmong American Partnership office. But the blighted gap in the streetscape of small businesses won’t be around much longer.
Community and city leaders are turning it into Little Mekong Plaza, the latest addition to the Little Mekong neighborhood. It will host part of a night market that, once a year, transforms University and Western avenues into a hub of Southeast Asian food, goods and culture.
The creation of Little Mekong in 2012 has helped local businesses, said David Simoukdalay, manager of Lao Thai restaurant. “This district, it needed something like that to represent the Asian community,” he said.
Simoukdalay said he was hopeful the Green Line also would improve business. At least so far, he has not seen a major increase in customers.
Audrey Park, with the Asian Economic Development Association, said it will likely take a couple more years for neighborhoods to see the results of the Green Line.
“Two years out, I think it’s still too early to tell,” she said.