There was a collective sigh of relief along west University Avenue last November as the 2011 Central Corridor construction season came to a close.
The heavy equipment departed, barricades came down and traffic flowed freely again along University in the three-mile stretch from Emerald Street at the Minneapolis border to Hamline Avenue.
Construction on University Avenue is set to begin this week
Over the mild winter, construction crews installed the steel structure for the canopies at the Westgate, Raymond Avenue, Fairview Avenue and Snelling Avenue stations, according to the Metropolitan Council, the agency managing the project. In early spring, there will be lane restrictions between Cleveland and Prior avenues as crews build retaining walls, relocate utilities and pour sidewalks, curbs and gutters on the north side of University.
From Emerald to Hamline, track will be laid, stations completed and power substations sited.
Now the heavy work shifts east to the University segment from Hamline to Robert Street. Although many of the logistics still are being worked out, “We are considering opening shorter segments at a time for construction to minimize disruption,” said Laura Baenen, the Met Council’s communications manager for the project. She said one lane of traffic will remain open in each direction on University, and vehicle and pedestrian access is promised to all businesses.
So how did things go on west University? A year ago, merchants contacted by the Park Bugle worried about the elimination of on-street parking, especially those who lacked parking lots.
Dana Rose, co-owner of Sharrett’s Liquors at Raymond and University, was pessimistic then and he still is.
“I don’t think our business will ever come back to what it was,” he says. “There’s a lot of housing coming in and the area is becoming gentrified, so we’ll gain some walk-in traffic, but this is still a driving destination.” Keys Café a few doors up Raymond is allowing Sharrett’s customers to use its lot after its own 3 p.m. closing; at other times, customers have to look for an open metered parking spot on Raymond.
Over at the Egg and I restaurant in the Court International Building, 2550 University Ave. W., owner Eric Grotbeck said things turned out about as he expected. Business was down slightly, but access was available to the building’s north parking lot.
“This building has 600 or 700 people working in it and many stayed put for lunch because it was too much of a hassle to go out,” he said. “Even our weekend trade held up.”
Jack McCann, president of the University Avenue Business Association, had predicted a 30–60 percent loss of revenue for businesses in the area. He now believes that losses so far are at the lower end of that range, but still significant. And the experience for businesses along the Hamline to Robert segment is still to come.
The City of St. Paul authorized a forgivable loan program that provides up to $20,000 for a business adversely affected by light rail is available. Thus far, 55 St. Paul-based businesses have participated in the program.
“It’s a drop in the bucket for some businesses and the Met Council’s economic assessment has only considered storefront retail,” McCann said. “Damage to other types of businesses is unknown.”
That economic assessment by the Met Council recently was found wanting by U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank who ordered a more detailed financial analysis.
During the past year, there were a number of marketing initiatives to support affected businesses, many of them under the banner of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce’s Discover Central Corridor campaign.
The Midway Chamber of Commerce, for example, published a “Buy Local” coupon book offering discounts along the Central Corridor, said Kari Canfield, the chamber’s executive director. So successful was the effort, according to Canfield, that another 50,000 coupon books are being issued. They were expected to be available at the end of February at the Midway Cub Foods, local banks and other locations, or by calling the Discover Central Corridor hotline at 651-528-8776.
A Lunch on the Avenue program has also been highly successful, Canfield said. The chamber spotlighted specific locally owned University Avenue restaurants on a given day and several dozen people typically attended. Featured area restaurants included Bonnie’s Cafe, Lucy Coffee Café, Transfer Road Deli, Caffe Biaggio, Keys and Caribe Caribbean Bistro.
The program is running on alternate Thursdays in 2012, though the focus is moving down the avenue to the Hamline-Robert stretch.
Canfield said that her organization will continue to provide support, but the Metropolitan Council is now taking the lead in the marketing campaign.
To that end, the council is in the process of awarding a $1.2 million, two-year marketing contract to Mod & Co., a St. Paul advertising, marketing and design firm. The goal of the campaign is get the word out that affected businesses are open and accessible during the construction.
The Central Corridor trains are scheduled to start running in 2014.
Roger Bergerson is a freelance writer and local historian who lives in Como Park.