What’s up on Central?

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When you see a bunch of American flags lining Central Avenue next month, you can thank the East Minneapolis Exchange Club, and another entity that isn’t nearly as well known, but its works are among the most visible in Northeast.

It’s called the Central Avenue Special Services District, which is responsible for the snow removal, the extra street cleanings and the holiday lights that have been part of Central, between 19th and 26th avenues, for the past several years.

Residents learned about the Special Services District, and a lot more about what’s happening on Central Avenue these days, at What’s Up On Central, an April 30 session at the Salvation Army hall on Central, sponsored by the five neighborhood organizations that touch Central.

Christine Levens, who is executive director of the Northeast Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce and also serves on the Special Services District advisory group, told the group that this was a good (read: inexpensive) year for snow removal. The District is also involved in providing the banners on Central Avenue light posts, the new yellow bicycle racks, and flower pots in front of businesses.

A common complaint along Central, she said, is too much garbage, and the District is hoping to arrange for garbage can collection three times a week instead of the current twice-a-week schedule.

First Ward Minneapolis City Council Member Kevin Reich spoke about the paving project that’s now underway on Central, from Washington Avenue downtown to 53rd Avenue NE in Columbia Heights.

He said the stretch from 14th to 18th avenues will be skipped this year, because the railroad bridge that crosses Central south of 18th might be replaced next year, and the roadway would need to be rebuilt at that time.

More parts of Central, he said, should be zoned with a “pedestrian overlay” that would group pedestrian-friendly businesses on walkable stretches of the avenue.

In response to a later question, he said the former Burger King site at 18th and Central avenues NE is “much more polluted than initially thought,” and that the City is helping with cleanup costs. Northeast-based Hillcrest Development recently bought the site from Cushman Minar, who had owned it for decades and leased it to Burger King.

Levens spoke again about the Northeast Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce, and its work helping local businesses, including those on Central. The Chamber sponsors the Northeast cleanup days, called Weed It And Reap. The Chamber also sponsors six “get acquainted breakfasts” and four “town talk meetings” each year, and is, she said, a “big promoter of the arts.”

The Chamber’s board members, she said, are pursuing what they call “the art of business,” offering their business expertise to area artists.

The Chamber is also administering facade grants offered through the City of Minneapolis, she said, and “we’ve had amazing response.” City grant money is available to help businesses and building owners make visible improvements to building fronts.

Minneapolis Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator Shaun Murphy said the car-bicycle crash rate at Central and Lowry was found to be very high, and a study recommended bike lanes on Central from 18th Avenue to 27th Avenue.

He said the city and the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) are working together to improve pedestrian, bicycle and automobile traffic after the construction work on Central.

An initial recommendation called for cutting Central down to one lane in each direction, with liberal turning lanes, but it was decided to continue with two lanes in each direction, but to narrow them, allowing for more room for bicycle lanes. The lanes will be included between 18th and 27th, except at Lowry and 27th.

He said bike routes will soon be coming on Polk and Fillmore streets, which will be “more family friendly” than lanes that are right next to Central Avenue traffic.

Minneapolis Police Inspector Bryan Schafer, who commands the police department’s 2nd precinct, which has a Central Avenue headquarters, said crime is down 33 percent from 2011 to 2012, in the five neighborhoods that touch Central Avenue. He credits the precinct’s Central beat, which places officers on Central more frequently, for the improvements.

In response to a later question about what to expect when the Lowry Avenue Bridge opens, he said that Northeast did not see a significant change in crime rates when the bridge was closed, and that he doesn’t expect significant changes when it opens again.

Nick Juarez, he said, is currently the area’s only crime prevention specialist, but the department is hoping to hire another one soon.

Reich spoke again about the city’s research into a possible streetcar line on Central. Streetcars are better than light rail for a street such as Central, he said, because they stop much more frequently.

In response to a later question about costs, he said streetcars are much more economical than buses. “Steel on steel versus rubber on asphalt,.” he said. Maintenance costs will be much lower.

Studies in other cities such as Tucson, Arizona and Portland, Oregon, he said, show that “fixed rail investment is a strong predictor of real estate development.”

Eastside Food Co-op General Manager Amy Fields is also on the board of directors of Northeast Investment Cooperative. That group, which now has 40 members, is looking to buy buildings on Central Avenue.

“We want to buy, rehab, and sell,” she said. “We want to be the kind of landlord you want to have in the community.”

She said the group wants to double its membership. Each member invests $1,000, she said, and the plan is for members to get their investments back, and more. “You are going to have to wait a while for that return,” she said.

She said the group isn’t afraid to take on development projects that might appear challenging. Those are the ones they’re the most interested in. “We aren’t likely to be buying properties that other people are going to be buying,” she said.

Windom Park Citizens in Action, Audubon Neighborhood Association, Northeast Park Neighborhood Association, Holland Neighborhood Improvement Association and Logan Park Neighborhood Association sponsored the April 30 session.