Think Big Picture: An affordable housing plan for Central Corridor

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The Big Picture Project, as the name suggests, has some big ideas. The team behind the Project, which was organized to align affordable housing plans along the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit route, is made up of key players from local government, finance, urban planning, real estate development and of course, the community. Some of these individuals, as well as a summary of their findings and final recommendations, were present March 2 at a University of Minnesota Center for Urban and Regional Affairs brown bag forum. [Download the full PDF document of the plan here.]

Affordable Housing

Thousands of new housing units, both market rate and affordable, will be constructed, “17,000 new housing units over the next 30 years,” according to the Central Corridor station area plans. Minneapolis and St. Paul’s goals for citywide new affordable housing units by 2020, based on Metropolitan Council calculations, total 6,625 units of affordable housing. Big Picture projects that between 2,540 and 4,500 units will be produced or preserved along the Corridor.

Minneapolis, St. Paul, LISC partnership

Big Picture was co-convened by the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, along with the Twin Cities office of Local Initiatives Support Corporation, (LISC), with support from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative. On a basic level, it is a working group of professionals and community representatives with common interests and goals related to coordinating the various plans for affordable housing and community development along the Central Corridor.

Gretchen Nicholls, Twin Cities LISC’s Corridor Development Initiative program officer, presented the group’s work and fielded questions. First, she said, the project team of about 25 people was assembled. Next, they held community forums for input and feedback. They hosted listening sessions and roundtable discussions with Minneapolis neighborhood associations and St. Paul district councils. The result was a baseline agreement.

“We do need affordable housing,” Nicholls said. “And we can’t rely on government to do it alone.” The first of their three chief objectives is to invest in and preserve affordable housing opportunities presented by the arrival of mass transit along the Central Corridor.

The other two objectives: to stabilize the neighborhood and invest in activities that help low-income people stay in their homes and to strengthen families through coordinated investments.

Moving west to east along the Corridor, the demographics change — as does the relative strength of the markets for affordable housing in the eyes of developers. According to the report, “The majority of warm market strategies around affordable housing are regulatory and policy-oriented (inclusionary zoning, density bonuses, etc.) that are meant to leverage the private market to pay for affordable housing, while colder markets rely more heavily on public investment to stimulate any kind of development.”

The warmest markets are the geographic subareas of Downtown Minneapolis, University & Environs and Midway West; Midway Central is listed at medium market strength, while Midway East and Downtown St. Paul are the coldest. Development will likely occur first in the western half of the Corridor and move eastward.

The contradiction, however, is that the east side is where the need for affordable housing might be the most concentrated. Median household income is just over $32,000 along the eastern end of University Avenue in Midway East, according to Big Picture’s report, just 39% of regional Area Median Income. Rent is generally lower there, which balances things out to a certain extent. In very low-income neighborhoods, therefore, the focus becomes preserving and upgrading the existing housing stock along with keeping it affordable.

Collective Action for Equitable Development

Big Picture believes an equitable approach to transit-oriented development, or TOD, is necessary. Equitable TOD utilizes public-private partnerships that leverage private investment for affordable housing and commercial development along mass-transit corridors while simultaneously aiming to stabilize and strengthen communities. Safeguarding Central Corridor development against negative consequences such as displacement and gentrification is a critical element.

Big Picture’s two other objectives, however, generate other priorities for the corridor. Big Picture participants’ shared goals for strengthened livability include:

  • Increasing access to transportation;
  • Preventing foreclosures and vacancies;
  • Protecting vulnerable individuals from prohibitive increases in rent and property taxes;
  • Leveraging private investment for the creation of jobs, small business opportunities, cultural institutions, public art, green space and connectivity.

Big Picture took a “collective action approach,” which deliberately lacked a lead organization that could take the reins. Toward the end of her presentation, Nicholls posed the rhetorical question, “can we pull off collective action?” It worked for development in California’s Bay Area, she said, so it can work in the Twin Cities.

People, Not Just Housing Units

“These are not just units we are talking about – it’s people,” Nicholls said. “We are focused most of all on the human element.”

As Big Picture moves from the planning phase to implementation, obstacles remain. It is unclear who has ownership of the plan now that Big Picture group has released its final
recommendations. Next steps include evaluation of the project, after which subgroups of people involved on each level will take action using equitable TOD as a backdrop.

TOD will be good for some people, bad for some people; theoretically, though, it will strengthen communities. Kate Speed, Twin Cities LISC assistant program director, is hopeful that the group’s efforts have given the Central Corridor momentum toward a more equitable outcome. And according to Speed, the Central Corridor planning process can serve as a pioneering model for the rest of the country.

“Nationally, there really are no good examples of something this coordinated,” Speed said.


Coverage of issues and events that affect Central Corridor neighborhoods and communities is funded in part by a grant from Central Corridor Collaborative.