With the construction of the Central Corridor light-rail slated to begin as early as next year, many expect difficult changes for life on University Avenue. To ease the transition, the Metropolitan Council has pledged more than $27 million to the University of Minnesota for a transit and pedestrian mall and disruptions to scientific equipment. Recently, the Met Council came to a major settlement with Minnesota Public Radio to mitigate disruptions to MPR studios.
Yet when University Avenue small business owners, many of them Southeast Asian Americans, rallied August 26 to demand mitigation for anticipated losses due to street construction and lost parking, they got a different reception. Met Council spokesperson Laura Baenen replied to MPR that there was “no money in the project budget for handouts.”
Such words leave business owners like Lysa Bui, co-owner of Saigon Restaurant at 704 University Ave. W., even more alarmed about the Met Council’s approach to building light-rail.
“The word ‘handout’ is so hideous,'” Bui says. “To me, it is a racial comment, because the Met Council is giving the U of M money and Public Radio money, but they’re ignoring this part of University. Businesses here are taxpayers, not beggars.”
Bui, who is spearheading the “Save Our Businesses and Jobs” campaign, is well versed in the history of transportation development in the Twin Cities, and the disproportionate impacts those developments can have on communities of color. She says she is haunted by tales of the Rondo neighborhood, the historic home to Saint Paul’s African American community. During the construction of I-94 in the early 1960s, Rondo lost its major commercial corridor and more than 650 homes at government hands.
This time around, Bui fears the Central Corridor could displace communities of color “in a more delicate way.” Business owners are concerned that construction, increased property taxes, and a significant loss of street parking along University Avenue, will wipe out a thriving Southeast Asian-American business community.
Rather than opposing light rail, the “Save Our Businesses” campaign wants to make sure existing businesses and communities live long enough to benefit from it.
Tino Hing, who co-owns and operates Universal Hair Design, 690 University Ave. W., compares fighting for business mitigation to preventive medicine. He says he’s worried that the rising cost of doing business during construction may force him to raise prices – something he would rather not force on a loyal client base that has been hit hard by the faltering economy. Working for just compensation, he says, is like getting a flu shot.
“Construction is going to take three or four years,” Hing says. “If you see it’s coming, why not do something ahead of time? We need to be compensated for our losses during construction, before it’s too late.”
Like Bui, Universal Hair co-owner Woneeda Hing questions the Met Council’s rationale for easing some negative impacts of light-rail construction but not others. Small businesses, she points out, have played a central role in economic growth and crime prevention on University Avenue.
“It’s not about a handout,” she says. “It’s about trying to make a living and keep the economy going. Let’s say none of us had a business over here. Where would we go? Would the Met Council rather have us on welfare, asking for assistance? We’ve been supporting ourselves all these years. Why are they helping other parts of University Avenue and not us?”
Bui says she knows that getting business mitigation funding won’t fix everything. In Seattle, where transit planners set aside $50 million for business mitigation during new light-rail construction, she notes that 20 percent of small businesses in the affected area still went under. But with little budgeted mitigation in place other than signage and “business consulting,” Bui and the Hings say fair compensation for losses experienced during construction would make a crucial difference for the University Avenue small business community.
“The more voices we have, the more concern we express, the likelier the Met Council and the city are to do something about it,” Bui says. “It’s gotten to the point where it’s now or never.”
David Seitz (email@example.com) is a student at Macalester College in St. Paul, studying political science, gender studies and American studies. As a writer, activist and student, he is interested in anti-racist, feminist, and queer approaches to community journalism, politics, spirituality and social geography.
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