When community groups met March 7 and 8 at the Central Corridor Resource Center on University Avenue to discuss the impending light rail system, they had a single goal in mind:
“Some power to influence the decision makers,” Nieeta Presely, the Executive Director of the St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation said.
Attendees of the conference hoped that power would stem from a community statement co-developed by the groups–some of which have very different goals and missions–at the two-day conference, said Carol Swenson, a community liaison for the District Council Collaborative (DCC).
Swenson said the different groups had done a lot of work toward their individual goals, but needed to come together and formulate a single document that will be delivered to the Metropolitan Council, the government entity overseeing the new light rail route, as well as other “decision makers”.
The statement, when issued on April 15, will state the authors’ view that the community views the light rail project not only as a transportation project, but also as a catalyst for economic development.
A preliminary version of the document states: “The main measure of success in planning and building the light rail line, from the community perspective, is whether it strengthens and enhances neighborhoods and businesses along the route.”
From environmental groups to small business owners, the conference was attended by dozens of community and other interest groups. About 130 people came to Saturday’s sessions, almost reaching the organizer’s goal of 150.
The 11-mile, nearly $1 billion dollar Central Corridor project will connect the downtowns of St. Paul and Minneapolis via a light rail train following University Avenue. Construction is scheduled to start in 2010, with the first trains rolling in 2014.
University Avenue is an important thoroughfare that connects neighborhoods of various socioeconomic statuses, and Swenson said the groups want to ensure the community is acknowledged as a viable stakeholder of the project.
“One of the concerns from the community perspective is that they give Met Council a lot of ideas and feedback but no one really sees anything happening,” Swenson said.
The preliminary statement listed the following as some of the needs identified during the conference:
• Ensure that the line benefits, and provides a net gain in transit access for all neighborhoods, with special attention to the needs of ethnic minorities and economically disadvantaged populations.
• Build the three missing stations at Western, Victoria and Hamline before the line opens in 2014.
• Protect the diversity of the corridor by providing additional resources to ensure that small businesses can survive and thrive and that current residents can remain in their homes.
• Set aggressive requirements — not just goals — for hiring of local workers from underrepresented populations, and undertake increased outreach and training.
• Replace lost on-street parking.
The need to bring individual statements together is long overdue, according to Lisa Amman from ISAIAH, a coalition of 90 churches throughout Minnesota. She said the work done thus far by separate community groups has lacked cohesion, which has inhibited their viability.
“It’s like there’s no one person or no entity, there’s no one taking responsibility for actually lining it up and putting together the puzzle,” Amman said. “There’s a lot of assets, it’s just there’s no plan yet.”
According to Swenson, the DCC will take a lead role in constructing and maintaining the community statement, with the aid of the other organizations that attended the conference.
Swenson said the dialogue between groups who had not previously been communicating is the first step toward action.
“Once we create a comprehensive understanding and picture of the community perspective and vision on this, we can continue and expand the dialogue with elected officials and with each other,” Swenson said. “That’s where you start getting the solutions and moving forward.”
Laura Baenen, spokesperson for the Metropolitan Council, said in an email interview they “would review [the community statement] when it is received just as staff would review a statement from any other group.”
Baenen added that the Metropolitan Council reviews all concerns received and solicited, regardless of their source, and said that significant changes have been made to the route because of community involvement.
Aaron Corcoran from the DCC said connecting the separate initiatives was an important part of the conference because it gives decision makers a better sense of the impact the project has on a large number of people.
“Especially with the number of people living where they do, how they do, in such a dense area, if you get it wrong, it affects everyone,” Corcoran said.
Nathaniel Minor is a student at the University of St. Thomas and an intern at the TC Daily Planet.