Central Corridor fight points to need for sidewalk advocacy

It was a cold day in Saint Paul. The mayor stood on the sidewalk in front of the bus stop, and shivered through his grey suit. His voice carried through the microphone, and a dozen journalists scribbled down a few words about cities and equality. They knew what he was going to say, and they knew what they were going to write. The train was a political hot button, and everyone wanted a piece of the action. Lots of money was going to flow through this street soon, and everyone knew it. The only question was: who was going to get it?

Later, in the men's room, I overheard the cameramen grumbling about the quality of the video. The bus was idling by the microphones, ruining the audio. It was raining. You couldn't make out where you were. The backgrounds weren't very nice...

It can be hard to make low-income housing into a sexy story. Where do you get good footage? Where do you find someone angry enough for television? How do you make people care about gentrification that hasn't happened yet? The last thing that's going to make the evening news is a bunch of people standing around in suits talking vaguely about bright futures. But that's what we had here, on this Light Rail bus tour.

Thanks to a reader of this blog, a few weeks ago I was lucky enough to get invited along on a PR tour of the Central Corridor put on by the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative, a group of foundations that is working on land use and equity issues along the LRT line. I showed up around noon on a Thursday, and boarded a fancy motorcoach semi-filled with reporters, foundation professionals, and various hangers on. It took us up and down University Avenue, from Western Avenue (my home street) all the way over the border in Minneapolis to the Downtime Cafe parking lot. At each stop, we all trouped out of the bus and listened to some speechifying by the newly-reelected Mayor, a foundation head or two, and some folks representing neighborhood groups.

[Reporters and foundation types rode a bus that had previously carried the 2007 Northwoods League champions.]

It was an interesting experience for me, not because I learned anything new about University Avenue. (Hint: I didn't.) Rather, it put into focus the incredibly complex politics surrounding transportation planning. This train project is a great example of how big a deal all this stuff is. I used to work at a library at the legislature, and we had a shelf of old plans and impact statements for the University Avenue light rail train that went back into the mid-1980s. You could make a life-long career out of planning this project.

The thing you quickly realize if you're paying attention to the LRT debate is that when it comes to planning politics, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Every possible business or community interest knows about the coming construction, parking changes, and landscape. The largest players have their lawyer on speed dial. And everyone is trying to scrape for every dollar.

Anytime you build anything, you create winners and losers. Most obviously, all the people involved in the construction are winners, and the businesses and homeowners that are shut down or hampered by the construction are losers. But then you get the different transportation patterns. The light rail will dramatically change how people move around through a large part of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. It'll replace car lanes with train rails, take out parking spots, slow down speeds, increase traffic in some places and reduce it in others.

In the end, certain land uses will be hurt (auto shops, places that require really easy access) and others will greatly benefit (office buildings, any sort of dense residential use, things that benefit from pedestrian activity). Anyone who owns land along the line will benefit, probably, from increased land values. Anyone renting will receive a mixed bag of higher rents but easier transportation access and more choices in their neighborhood. It's hard to know how it will all play out!

In a funny way, in talking to people, you realize that the short-term concerns are paramount. Business owners don't really care about what the street will look like 4 years from now. They are mostly concerned with what it will look like one year from now, when there are bulldozers in front of their entrance. And, that's why so many people are pissed off and suing each other over this situation.

[Apparently the abandoned yogurt factory on the corner of Western and University epitomizes the promise of Light Rail in Saint Paul.]

In think this press tour was an attempt to show that there are groups coming together to address some of these fractured issues -- gentrification, business mitigation, and promoting walking and biking. But, without an effective coalition of groups interested in making sure that University Avenue is a pleasant place to walk, bike, and take the bus, sidewalks, streetscaping, and crucial infrastructure will likely be lost amid the cacophony of groups angling for a stimulus package.

I fear that pedestrians could get screwed with this project. The problem is that, compared to the amount of people concerned with gentrification and parking, there are far fewer folks out there who are making waves about the importance of wide sidewalks, bike lanes, or public infrastructure. I can only hope that the planners spend money on the right things, and that sidewalks don't get lost amid the political shuffle.

[Bowties are very popular among planners and non-profit professionals. Planning drawings are used only for decorative effect.]

1 comment:

Andrew said...

"there are far fewer folks out there who are making waves about the importance of wide sidewalks, bike lanes, or public infrastructure"

-There should be at least to NPO's that I can call out off the top of my head that are advocating for this: University United and Transit For Livable Communities. Where there any representatives from their organizations on this press tour? And if not on this one, I am sure they have been on previous tours before it. You are absolutely correct in your statement of making a career out of this single project, and we can all talk about it until we are blue in the face. Nice to see you blogging about transit again, will you be @ the Northstar opening this weekend? I was able to get a hold of two tickets and will be riding from the Coon Rapids/Riverdale Station. Very excited for the arrival of Northstar.