Lost parking spaces. Business survival during construction. Community cohesion. Residents and business owners along the University Avenue corridor have voiced these and other concerns about the upcoming central corridor light rail line to Shoua Lee, a Metropolitan Council community outreach coordinator, but some doubt she has the power to do anything about them.
“As an outreach coordinator, we are trying to let them know what is happening with the project, where we are at with things, and to also get their input, to get them to participate in the process,” Lee said
One of Lee’s clients, Russ Battisto, owner of A-1 Vacuum Cleaner Co. on University Ave., said he has met with Lee a few times, but doesn’t think his concerns are being addressed. “Nothing that I would like done in regard to the project has been done, but they are aware of my concerns and what they do with that awareness is totally up to them at this point,” Battisto said.
Battisto said the lack of on-street parking, his business’ survival during construction and the hike in property taxes he will endure are his main concerns.
Pastor Akin Adeniyi of the Deeper Life Bible Church, also on University Ave., shares some of these concerns. Adeniyi said he didn’t know what was being done about them. “I haven’t had much communication with them”, Adeniyi said. “I know they sent me some materials, but that is basically all they have done.”
Adeniyi added that he “hadn’t done much” himself to voice his concerns.
Lee is part of a six-person team of outreach coordinators, who are each assigned approximately two miles of territory along the corridor. The coordinators use a variety of methods—sometimes starting with just knocking on doors and then progressing to organizing meetings—to get to know their clients and their concerns.
Roughly 75 percent of on-street parking in Lee’s area from Dale St. to the Capital Easy neighborhood will be lost after the project is complete, but Lee said she is working with business owners to deal with the problem.
“Some of the business owners we’ve talked to, we’ve had to ask them…‘Okay, you’ve got two driveways that go into your parking lot; can we cut one driveway so we can fit in another couple parking spaces?’” Lee said.
Battisto said the outreach coordinator’s power to make the changes was “limited”, but added the number of government agencies involved and the project’s inevitably are the reason for that.
Lee said most business are nervous about the construction phase of the project, but “after construction, many people say they are excited for the benefits,” Lee said.
Lee’s job as community outreach coordinator means she works with the diverse population of the corridor. Lee said some concerns are specific to certain ethnicities.
“From the African-American community around Rondo there are definitely concerns that it will divide the community again, that their sense of community will be lost. We hear a lot of comparisons between [Interstate] 94 and the central corridor,” Lee said. “They wanted to get north and south of University Avenue so they could feel there was that community cohesion; they could visit their grandma on the north side and walk back home to the south side. That’s a big reason why those non-signalized pedestrian crossings were put in.” These crosswalks will intersect the back end of the stations. “Not only for secondary access to the stations, but so people could get across [University Avenue] without having to walk a quarter of a mile,” Lee said.
Lee said the difference between the impact Interstate 94 had and the potential impact of the central corridor light rail is something she has to explain often. “It’s a very different project; it’s not leveling homes. Lee said. “Some people… heard rumors that for four blocks in each direction the homes were going to be taken, and we had to reassure them that is not the case.”
Gaining trust among residents and businesses along the corridor is essential to Lee’s work, but the diversity of her clients makes it difficult. “For immigrant businesses who come from countries where government is not the most trustworthy entity, it’s a little hard for them to understand public participation and civic engagement,” Lee said. “There are still some people who are like ‘I’m not sure; are you here from the IRS? Who are you here from?’ There is some hesitance sharing information.”
Lee’s own background helps her bridge this gap. “We are all very passionate about working with people…I came to this country with my family with nothing, so I understand the importance of being able to rely on something like transit.”
Nathaniel Minor is a student at the University of St. Thomas and an intern with the Twin Cities Daily Planet.