Will the Green Line re-energize University Avenue?
Saint Paul Pioneer Press (MN), 2014-06-12
June 12 -- University Avenue has been on St. Paul's fix-it list since the 1970s.
Until Interstate 94 opened in 1968, University was the main artery connecting the Twin Cities and the backbone of a bustling commercial corridor. When commuters abandoned it for the interstate, the avenue's economic vitality went with them.
Transit backers hope the opening of the Green Line will be the shot in the arm University Avenue has long needed.
"Transit is really an economic development tool," said Nancy Homans , director of policy for Mayor Chris Coleman's office. "Is this a silver bullet? No. Obviously, we need to continue to invest. But this is a big deal."
University Avenue has a history of thwarting attempts to restore its pre-interstate prosperity.
Groups with names like University Avenue Development Council , University Avenue Task Force and University Avenue Area Planning and Redevelopment Committee all commissioned studies and hired consultants in the 1970s, '80s and '90s to analyze the corridor and how best to rejuvenate it.
They planted trees, secured financing for new businesses and drove out the topless bars and porno theaters. But they were never able to turn it around.
If the light rail does finally tip the balance in University Avenue's favor, it would be fitting -- it was a rail transit line from St. Paul to Minneapolis that helped develop the corridor in the first place.
FROM GRAND TO MISBEGOTTEN
In the late 1800s, the Twin Cities were growing up independently of each other, and planners envisioned University Avenue as the artery that would join them.
Built along an old ox-cart road, University was envisioned as a 660-foot-wide thoroughfare to rival the Champs-Elysees in Paris .
"We started out with grand aspirations," said Brian McMahon , a University Avenue historian whose organization, University United, supports the Green Line .
"It was to be one of the greatest avenues in the world."
The vision was never fully realized.
The avenue -- only 110 feet wide -- was still largely unpaved when, in 1890, a trolley track running along its center linked the Twin Cities by rail for the first time.
"Building University Avenue was considered a very important symbolic and real step toward connecting the two cities," McMahon said. Several big-name businesses soon located on the avenue, including the Brown & Bigelow publishing company in 1914 and Montgomery Ward in 1921.
Over the next two decades, the automobile challenged the supremacy of the trolley. Auto dealerships and repair shops began popping up along University, transforming it into the city's auto row. By 1946, 14 new car dealers had set up shop on the avenue.
Other businesses, like Porky's drive-in, soon followed to cater to the needs of motorists.
Trolleys went out of favor, and, in 1953, the system was retired and replaced by buses.
But it was the completion of I-94 through the area in the 1960s that marked the beginning of the end for University Avenue's heyday. The car dealerships and their customers moved to the suburbs.
"It went into a 50-year slump," McMahon said.
Into the void stepped drug dealers, prostitutes and "adult entertainment." University Avenue -- especially in Frogtown -- gradually became notorious as the seediest street in St. Paul .
Beginning in the late 1980s, the police department and City Hall teamed up to crack down on the avenue's criminal element and implement zoning restrictions to uproot sex-oriented businesses.
May Yang moved to University Avenue around that same time. His store, May's Market, is located at the corner of University and Western avenues and is one of the oldest Asian groceries in the Twin Cities .
"My first impression of University Avenue was that it was unclean, unsafe and crime filled, especially at night," Yang said.
Growing up on University in the 1990s, Yang's daughter, Tiffany, remembers being forbidden to play outside by herself. Two decades later, she said she's seen a dramatic change in the neighborhood, especially recently.
"The neighborhood is friendlier," Tiffany Yang said. "It's gotten a lot safer."
LOST IN TRANSITION
The push for a light-rail line between the Twin Cities began in earnest around 1980. But it would take more than 25 years for the route along University Avenue to take shape.
When construction of the Green Line finally began in 2011, it tested University's already struggling businesses.
According to the Metropolitan Council , the area lost 120 businesses between 2011 and 2013 -- though not all of the losses can be directly attributed to construction. Those that survived and the 128 new businesses that have opened are hoping to benefit from an anticipated infusion of customers delivered by train.
Not everyone is optimistic.
John Reiter , owner of Regina Vacuum Service, notes the elimination of 85 percent of the avenue's on-street parking spaces. And the train's median location has made it tougher to access side streets and businesses.
"If we didn't own the building, I might relocate to someplace that has more car-friendly access," Reiter said. "I mean, look at what we fix. ... Nobody brings their vacuum in on the bus."
Isabel Chanslor , a consultant with St. Paul's Neighborhood Development Center , says Reiter's concerns are valid.
"I think businesses that are really dependent on car traffic are really suffering because of the lack of on-street parking," she said. "I think those businesses are eventually going to be phasing themselves out of the area."
Cousins Peter and Michael Latuff , owners of Latuff Brothers Auto Body, aren't worried. There have been ups and downs on University since their fathers and an uncle started the business in 1933.
They endured a roughly 25 percent dip in sales -- and $4,500 in damages to their building -- while the Green Line was being built. Business, though, is now back to normal.
"When our customers need us, they need us, and they find a way to get to us," Peter Latuff said.
The city is taking a second look at whether it makes sense to restore some of University's on-street parking, Homans said. And officials have been seeking ways to help the corridor's businesses.
The Metropolitan Council hired St. Paul -based Mod & Co. to market the Green Line -- and the businesses along it -- during construction. Mod re-imagined University Avenue as a series of business districts.
Areas like Little Mekong, Midway and Frogtown already existed, but they weren't marketed effectively, Homans said.
"We're creating destinations," she said. "For a long time, University wasn't a destination."
Bringing life to University is dependent on bringing people to live there, McMahon said. The area's recovery is being spurred by new housing and accelerated by the Green Line .
Two years ago, Erica Strait opened Foxy Falafel on Raymond Avenue , about a block off University.
She expected light rail to eventually benefit her restaurant, but she now thinks she underestimated the impact.
"Over the last two years, there's been distinct growth," Strait said, pointing to the upscale C&E Lofts that opened across the street last year. "With lofts and apartments growing on University, that really helps our businesses."
The recent housing uptick on University, though, hasn't kept pace with the growth elsewhere along the Green Line .
Between 2010 and 2013, the neighborhoods along University Avenue netted 44 new housing units, according to a Funders Collaborative study. Meanwhile, downtown St. Paul gained 544 and the University of Minnesota area gained 672.
Funders Collaborative director Jonathan Sage-Martinson said until recently, zoning regulations along University limited high-rise development. But adjustments to the city's zoning code will change that.
Zoning changes should also make 15 vacant commercial buildings along the avenue more desirable to developers, he said. And the city is looking into redeveloping expansive parking lots into smaller, more developable city blocks. Although, Homans said, that effort is still in its early stages.
But the trend toward high-density land use would mark a clear departure from the suburban sprawl that sidelined University Avenue in the past.
After decades of watching the suburbs draw energy away from the city, Homans said, University Avenue is poised for a second act.
"I think we lost sight of how cities work," Homans said. "When the street car was on University, the businesses were there, and that was where you invested. ... In some ways, what's old is new again."
Nick Woltman can be reached at 651-228-5189. Follow him at twitter.com/nickwoltman .
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