University Ave. merchants wary as light rail construction begins

If there’s one thing that everybody involved with the Central Corridor light-rail transit line can agree on, it’s that 2011 will not be a year of business-as-usual on west University Avenue.

Preliminary utility work has provided a taste of what it will be like when heavy construction begins in a couple of weeks, starting on St. Paul’s western border at Emerald Street and moving steadily eastward, reaching Hamline Avenue by year’s end.

The Metropolitan Council, the agency managing the project, said that work will start on the south side of University, with one lane open in each direction on the north side. Vehicle and pedestrian access is promised to all businesses. Nevertheless, it seems inevitable that the elimination of on-street parking and the hubbub associated with such a massive undertaking will complicate the task of moving through the zone and shopping in it.

“We’ve told businesses that construction can be disruptive, and that they need to prepare for that disruption,” said Laura Baenen, Central Corridor spokesperson for the Metropolitan Council.

Biggest project ever

There are still a few hoops to jump through before the federal government commits to paying for the first half of the Central Corridor project, but the light-rail line clearly has momentum going for it. Some $145 million already has been spent on design, property acquisition and construction. By the time the nearly $1 billion line is up and running in 2014, it will have become the largest public works project in Minnesota history.

However, some University Avenue business owners contacted by the Park Bugle aren’t so sure they’ll still be around when the first train goes gliding by.

At least two businesses moved away from the avenue well in advance of construction: Finn Sisu, a cross-country ski store, moved several miles north to Larpenteur Avenue in Lauderdale, and Chocolat Celeste moved from its location on University Avenue near Highway 280 to Transfer Road about a mile east.

Chocolat Celeste owner Mary Leonard says the upcoming disruption, elimination of already-limited street parking and difficult delivery access played a major part in her decision. “There was just too much uncertainty and a retail store without parking isn’t viable,” she says.

Parking squeeze looms

“For the next five years, the issue will parking,” says Jack McCann, president of the University Avenue Betterment (formerly Business) Association. He is a partner in Update Company, which owns eight buildings in the Raymond/University area, including Midtown Commons at 2324-2334 University Ave. W.

McCann advocates creating “pocket” parking lots that businesses can share. “There could be meters to pay for it, on-street parking is municipal, after all,” he said. “If a business owner can say, ‘Well, at least customers can park on this block,’ the vitality stays. The last thing this area needs is a whole lot of ‘for sale’ or ‘for rent’ signs.”

Although the city may seek funding for parking projects from the Metropolitan Council, there’s no money to do anything at this time, said Craig Blakely, senior planner, Planning and Economic Development. Meanwhile, a set of recommendations for better management of parking in the corridor is moving through the city process, including the dedication of parking to commercial use on the side streets one block north and south of University.

Attitudes vary

The business owners who have their own parking lots tend to feel a lot more positively about light rail than those that don’t.

The Egg and I restaurant, for example, has a small lot it can use on the north (University Avenue) side of the Court International Building, just west of Highway 280. And even if that lot is blocked, says “Egg” owner Eric Grotbeck, there’s plenty of parking on the east side of the building. “I envision that things are going to be OK for us, but I worry about businesses that rely solely on on-street parking,” he said.

“Honestly, I’m not too concerned, although I may be naïve,” said Bruce Delles, owner of Twin Cities Reptiles, 2363 University Ave. W, that also has a parking lot. “We’re not a Starbucks; we don’t have a lot of competition and none close by. We may lose the tentative shopper, but I guess we’ve just got to deal with this. It’s called progress.”

The outlook is far less sanguine a few doors west at Sharrett’s Liquor Store, which has no off-street parking. “I’ve been in conversations with the city to see if some accommodation can’t be made, especially on Raymond Avenue,” said Dana Rose, co-owner of Sharrett’s. “It’s going to be a mess, because most of our trade drives to us and deliveries coming in are going to be trouble. If we survive over the long haul, it’s going to be amazing.”

Big Top Liquors at Snelling and University avenues has off-street parking, but manager Tim O’Connell says that’s no help, given the congestion that’s coming. “Snelling is a mess now from 3 to 6 p.m.,” he said, “and it’s only going to get much, much worse. People are going to avoid this area.”

Agencies reviewing impact

McCann of the Betterment Association predicts businesses that rely on street parking will lose 30 to 60 percent of their revenue during light-rail construction. Recently, as part of a larger ruling, a federal judge directed the Federal Transit Administration and the Metropolitan Council to conduct further study of the economic impact of light-rail construction on businesses in the corridor.

The agencies are complying, but no one is predicting that monetary relief will be forthcoming beyond the $1.5 million small-business loan fund already in place. Critics say that sum is woefully inadequate, given the losses likely to be experienced by the estimated 1,000 small businesses along the entire Central Corridor.

You can find out how to sign up for e-mail updates on upcoming developments at the project website, www.centralcorridor.org.

Roger Bergerson, a former newspaper reporter, is a freelance writer and longtime Como Park resident.

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