Asian businesses file complaint over Central Corridor

Lysa Bui, owner of Saigon Restaurant on University
Lysa Bui, owner of Saigon Restaurant, is one of a coalition of Asian-American business owners along University Ave. in St. Paul who have filed a civil rights complaint over the Central Corridor light rail project.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

A coalition of Asian-American business owners along University Avenue in St. Paul has filed a federal civil-rights complaint over the proposed Central Corridor light-rail project.

The complaint, lodged with the Federal Transit Administration, is similar to one that a group of African-American community and housing groups filed in June.

About 30 Asian businesses along University Avenue, from hair salons to noodle shops, make up the new coalition. It calls itself the Concerned Asian Business Owners.

Members of the group say construction of the 11-mile transit project, which would connect the downtowns of St. Paul and Minneapolis, would disproportionately harm minority businesses that they say contribute to the fabric of the neighborhood.

It also believes the Metropolitan Council has not adequately analyzed the impact of the construction.

"They cover, they hide all the negatives that comes with it," said Lysa Bui, who owns the Vietnamese restaurant Saigon and is a spokeswoman for the business group.

Bui has been lobbying the Met Council and the city to provide loans or other forms of financial assistance for small businesses like hers so they have a better chance of surviving construction.

Bui said the agency has downplayed the threat of lost business. She thinks the torn-up sidewalks, loss of parking, and overall dust, debris and commotion will keep her customers away.

"If the Met Council was being honest in the beginning, the state and the city would have most likely already set up a mitigation fund for businesses that would be affected," Bui said. "Now there's nothing set up for us at all. They've been talking about it for months now, and we still haven't heard anything."

The city of St. Paul has pledged to set up some kind of mitigation fund, but the plan is still in the early stages.

Central Corridor spokeswoman Laura Baenen said the Met Council recognizes the construction will disrupt businesses, but she said there's no money in the budget to provide them with compensation. She said the project needs to stay within budget, now at $941 million, so it can receive federal funding.

"We're struggling to pay for the project as it is already, and we just don't have money to do more," Baenen said.

Baenen notes the project has set aside an unknown amount of cash to help the public maintain access to businesses during construction. She notes that the Met Council has partnered with community organizations that have offered to provide financial and marketing expertise to small businesses.

But the Asian business group said the Met Council needs to do more. It wants the FTA to investigate what it considers a "glaring defect" in the Met Council's analysis.

Gen Fujioka of Oakland, Calif., is with the group National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development. His organization provided an analysis for the Asian business group's complaint. Fujioka said the Met Council's analysis fell short on several levels.

"It's hard to conceive of an economic analysis that doesn't even count the number of minority businesses in the neighborhood," Fujioka said. "What you have is a whitewash of the potential impacts on minority businesses."

Fujioka said the Asian business group has been assured by the FTA that it will look into its claims.

The complaint comes as the Federal Transit Administration has approved the Central Corridor environmental impact statement, and preliminary construction has already begun.

But the project still faces a number of challenges, including a lawsuit filed last month by the University of Minnesota. The U is concerned that the project would harm its research facilities.

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