Surviving LRT construction just a first step

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For small business owners in University Avenue’s Little Mekong, Central Corridor Light Rail construction has been a real challenge. While the city promises big rewards when construction is finished—two years from now—can these businesses survive the tumultuous construction period?

Between the jack hammering and the loss of sidewalks and parking, once popular businesses are seeing their revenues fall, they tell the Star Tribune. And after the construction, if property values rise and a hip creative class moves in, can the establishments that do make it survive in the changed neighborhood?

As My Dung Nguyn, Mai Village restaurant’s 20-year-old owner, put it in a recent Star Tribune story, My customers, some of them tell it to me straight. They say, ‘I love your family. I love your food. But I’m sorry; I won’t come back until the light rail is done.’

In some ways, this sentiment is fair. Driving down University Avenue is difficult—loud, slow, and dusty. Parking has been lost and bus service disrupted. But this should not mean customers abandon businesses.

While construction makes University Avenue shopping and eating less convenient, businesses are surviving. Construction is being done in stages, with most businesses only seeing heavy work in front of their shops for a several month span, not the entire length of light rail construction.

Street lanes re-open and the noise and dust settle. Most shops reliant on easy traffic flow along Minnesota 2020’s stretch of the project—which saw the heaviest work between March and July of 2011—have remained open. 

Along with progression, local governments have worked to ease construction’s financial pain. St. Paul has authorized $2.1 million in forgivable loans to businesses along the corridor for improvement and expansion of off-street parking. The Met Council also has set aside $4 million in forgivable loans of up to $20,000 for small businesses. Nonprofit Organizations, such as U7 have also helped small businesses stay open.

Edge Coffee House, a small and inviting coffee shop off of Raymond Ave., survived the construction’s early stages largely because of the support of U7, which helped it’s owner effectively advertise through business cards and social media.

While small businesses can ultimately make things work during construction, what is their future when the light rail begins running in 2014? Surviving construction is just the first step. According to a Brookings Institute survey, more walkable places perform better economically. This means higher property values, which means higher rents.

The Central Corridor LRT increases walkability and has the potential to profoundly affect those who populate University Avenue. LRT offers huge benefits in terms of sustainability and economic development, but will these benefits be at the cost of the areas like Little Mekong?