Outside the Lyric Apartments meeting room, orange construction barriers, fences and torn-up streets contrasted with the good cheer and artist-decorated hard hats of the Central Corridor Creative Enterprise Zone party.
The vision of the Creative Enterprise Zone at the crossroads of Raymond and University Avenue is to be a livable, mixed-use neighborhood, recognized and sustained as a center of creativity and enterprise. [From CEZ web page.]
The event was billed as a celebration of the arts and businesses along the Central Corridor, and it lived up to that promise. Food, drinks, art, music and determinedly upbeat speakers touted stronger ties among creative folks on the Central Corridor, a plan for supporting enterprise and creativity, support for local businesses, and hope for the future.
Light Rail drops you at a stop just east of University & Raymond Avenue. You are immediately engaged in the vibrant mix of industry, creativity and living space that makes the area so unique.
On one side of the avenue are historic buildings converted to condominiums, apartments and live-work artist spaces. Across the street, buildings are filled with working studios for artists, inventors and entrepreneurs. Nearby, a 100- year old industry now recycles paper into boxes.
But what’s the truth about the Creative Enterprise Zone and the whole Central Corridor? I came away from the party/press conference with less of an answer than I had when I walked in.
On the one hand, there’s the undeniable danger to small businesses along University Avenue from years of construction (the train won’t arrive until late in 2014), from loss of on-street parking, and from a projected increase in property values that may push rents and/or property taxes to a level they cannot afford.
On the other hand, the Central Corridor area (in St. Paul, University Avenue and a couple of blocks in each direction plus downtown St. Paul) is an area of great vitality and, as one of the speakers put it, “recognized distinction for creative enterprise.”
As you walk, you pass buildings filled with offices of non-profits, architects, arts groups and other creative enterprises. Residents and visitors mingle in the sidewalk cafes and public spaces are sprinkled throughout the community.
The boulevard is also home to distinctive shops and businesses that serve the population that lives and works in this unpretentious blend of blue- and white-collar. Bike paths coupled with transit provide access to the adjacent neighborhoods and campuses of Minneapolis and St. Paul
Even if you believe the Central Corridor is the wrong kind of train in the wrong place, it’s coming. Criticizing the Central Corridor, at this point, will not make it go away. Focusing on the difficulties of navigating the construction zone, however, might make customers go away, and that’s not what anybody wants.
Mayor Chris Coleman told the group that we are not “past the alphabet soup” of planning, and have moved on to the nuts and bolts of the Central Corridor. He cited a new business on University Avenue with 23 new employees as a sign of hope.
Council member Russ Stark talked about University Avenue and the neighborhood as having a long history that is all about transportation from James J. Hill and the railroad to the first streetcars in the Twin Cities in 1892 to the I-94 freeway in the 1950s and 1960s. Acknowledging that the freeways “in some ways sucked the life off the Avenue,” he said that “the train is going to bring that life back.”
The determined boosterism of the artists and politicians might also be what can “bring that life back,” or just keep University Avenue and the Central Corridor area alive through and beyond the coming of the train.
This authentic and historic crossroads, backed by community building and sustaining organizations, promotes the kind of creative, relational and vocational juxtapositions that generate a constantly emerging and stimulating sense of place.
Coverage of issues and events that affect Central Corridor neighborhoods and communities is funded in part by a grant from Central Corridor Collaborative.