The four-lane wide University Ave. between St. Paul and Minneapolis is, depending on your point of view, a thriving business incubator and commercial street, dotted with a refreshing mix of startup and established enterprises; or it's a dowdy, down-at-the-heels thoroughfare afflicted with chronically vacant or underused property.
Both views are true.
There's plenty of hustle and bustle for blocks along University Ave., interspersed with stretches of plain old-fashioned blight. The scene changes dramatically, and often pleasantly, just a block off the avenue.
Residential neighborhoods abound along stretches of the central corridor. Many are modest, middle-class areas with well-kept homes, where owners are making improvements.
The hot Twin Cities real estate market, fueled by vigorous population growth, is driving up property values everywhere -- including along University Ave. A nearby light rail line, everyone agrees, would accelerate the trend.
The increase would be driven in part by people -- developers, prospective homeowners and renters wanting to be close to light rail service.
A homeowner in the area, Benita Warns, doesn't look forward to that.
The next thing you know, University Ave. will look more like the streets of Chicago or New York or something (other) than the kind of town St. Paul always has been.Midway area homeowner Benita Warns
"The next thing you know, University will look more like the streets of Chicago or New York or something (other) than the kind of town St. Paul always has been," says Warns. "We really fear for the single-family character of our neighborhood."
Benita Warns lives five blocks off University Ave., in the Hamline-Midway neighborhood. That may be far enough away to soften some of the development impact of light rail. Instead of light rail along University Ave., she favors a bus rapid transit service.
Developer Steve Wellington, a light rail proponent, lives in a St. Paul neighborhood distant from the proposed line. His financial interest is rooted, in part, in the condominiums his company is putting up along University.
Wellington says building light rail down the center will change the character of the avenue.
"Having single-family homes half a block away for the next generation seems unlikely, and that's going to be a tough discussion. I'm not just picking on single-family homes, I'm talking about single-level businesses too. But if you drive University Avenue today, by and large it's a single level world," Wellington says.
The public hearings on the central corridor will gather testimony on three options: Building a light rail line for $840 million, supplying a bus rapid transit service for $241 million, or doing nothing.
A light rail line would run 11 miles from downtown Minneapolis, where it would connect with the existing Hiawatha light rail service and the proposed Northstar commuter rail line.
From Minneapolis it would head east over the Mississippi River, then into a mile-long tunnel under the University of Minnesota's East Bank campus. The train would emerge and roll along tracks down the middle of University Ave. through St. Paul's Midway district.
Approaching St. Paul, the rail service would swing by the state Capitol, head downtown and stop at Union Depot, which is the focus of a massive renovation effort.
Legions of elected officials, business leaders and residents favor the light rail option, but tempered with varying degrees of concern.
Anne White, a homeowner who lives more than a dozen blocks from University Ave., supports light rail. Even so, she recognizes rising property values, rents and taxes will force a number of low-income people out.
"Clearly their rents will go up, and yet they don't have the option of gaining the benefit of the property tax value going up if they were to sell," White says.
Like Anne White, Nieeta Presley serves on a public task force of citizens appointed by the St. Paul mayor, to advise officials on how to plan for development along the central corridor.
Presley is director of the Aurora-St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corp., whose area includes University Ave.
If light rail is built, she wants the city and county to cap property taxes for people on fixed incomes living near the central corridor.
"We do have a higher number of seniors who are still living in their own homes on fixed incomes. With the advent of property taxes going sky high, they may not be able to maintain their homes and stay in their homes," Presley says.
Triesta Brown lives a few blocks off University Ave. in St. Paul, and many of the rental properties she owns and manages are in the area.
Her concern is the proposed light rail line has too few stops. The draft environmental impact statement for the project shows the rail stops along University would be about a mile apart.
The statement also predicts that if rail is built there'd still be local bus service along University, but it would be greatly reduced.
It makes more sense, Brown says, to keep the buses running along University and put the light rail where citizens and some elected officials recommend it should run, closer to Interstate 94, where drivers can see it. That was the recommendation 15 years ago.
"Would it make sense to have light rail interact with the freeway, at least on some visual aspect so that at least people stuck in traffic could say, 'Ah, I could have taken the train?'" says Brown.
Four public hearings are scheduled this week on the transit options for the central corridor. Then there's a month-and-half long period of taking written comments from the public.
After that, about mid-June, the Central Corridor Coordinating Committee, made up of elected officials from St. Paul, Minneapolis, Ramsey and Hennepin counties and representatives from the Metropolitan Council, Minnesota Department of Transportation and University of Minnesota, will recommend an option to the Metropolitan Council.
State lawmakers have already earmarked several million dollars for central corridor transit planning.
If light rail is selected, they'd need to approve several hundred million more, which would have to be matched by several hundred million in federal funds -- at a time when other cities around the country are clamoring for federal transit funds as well.