Small businesses along the proposed Central Corridor light rail line are seeing red this month after St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman proposed $2.9 million in assessments that the owners would have to pay for a streetscape improvement plan for improved lighting, drainage, and tree planting along St. Paul’s portion of the corridor. On December 31, the University Avenue Business Association (UABA) sent a letter refusing to support the assessments until the city made a commitment to do something about UABA’s other priorities: parking, business support funds, and preparation for light rail construction. (See related article: Rondo residents sue to stop Central Corridor)
Also on December 31, UABA adopted a resolution to oppose the Streetscape Proposal, which was presented at a hearing on January 6. The UABA resolution said that they would oppose the assessment unless the city agreed to a resolution requiring the creation of a plan to replace, where needed, the on-street parking spaces along University Avenue and a creation of a plan to establish and fund a Business Support Fund. In addition, UABA demanded that the maximum assessment for streetscape betterment be no more than $2 million.
UABA’s letter to the mayor and city council acknowledged the city’s efforts to fund $2 million for parking solutions and a decrease of $1 million for property assessments in the City Streetscape Proposal, but asked: “Is that the extent of the City’s business mitigation plan? What is Ramsey County doing for business mitigation?”
At the meeting on January 6, the Council decided to postpone the decision for two weeks. In an interview, Council Member Russ Stark said that the council has asked city staff to “look at tools we might use for interim financing.”
Stark said that while assessments typically would go into effect when the construction begins, the council is looking at possibly deferring the assessments until after the light rail is completed. The $2.9 million dollars, he said, was a maximum level, and he’s hoping that the council will find other sources. Alternative sources include state bonding and funding from the Met Council. “The bottom line is that we are hopeful in some of these options,” Stark said.
The $900 million dollar light rail project includes a 25 percent contingency fund, Stark said, which hasn’t been allocated yet. “Some of that money may go to improve the Washington Avenue Bridge and other various needs, but it’s possible some of it could go to streetscape improvements.”
The proposed $2.9 million assessments would mean property owners would pay $51 per foot of linear feet of property plus $3 per foot of property for ongoing maintenance for upgraded lights. Stark said that he’s hopeful that the costs could get delayed, and hopefully reduced as well. “We’ve heard repeatedly from business owners that the economy is really tough,” he said. “We’ve heard that loud and clear. We’re trying to figure out ways to reduce the pain.”
Mike Baca, Vice President and co-owner of Impressive Print, a printing company on University Avenue, and Vice President of UABA, said that he appreciates Stark’s willingness to work with UABA, but that the Central Corridor businesses need more support.
“Already last year our taxes went up 12 percent,” Baca said. “Then you’ve got the light rail coming through which is going to put the business into hardship. They haven’t come up with a plan to help us out.” Baca said the situation may run businesses out of the area. “I’ve got people coming up to me at Arby’s asking me what’s happening,” he said, “People are talking about leaving when their lease is up.”
Impressive Print has been on the corridor for 22 years, and has owned the same building on University Avenue for the last 15. “We put our own money into it to make it nice,” Baca said. “We’re going to keep paying and paying. Times are tough right now. We can’t bear it much longer.” While his business hasn’t come to the point where they have decided to leave, it may come to that if they don’t get cooperation from the city.