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Rondo area activists sue over Central Corridor

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Hiawatha train
Light rail trains such as this one are planned to run along the Central Corridor route, linking downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul, by 2014.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

A group of civil rights activists, business owners and residents in St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood have challenged the legality of the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit Project's planning efforts, in a lawsuit filed in federal court on Tuesday. 

The lawsuit alleges that government planners have failed to fully address the impact of the transit project on businesses and residents in the historic African American community, in violation of federal law. 

Community activists say that the 11-mile light rail line will gentrify the neighborhood and displace low-income residents. 

"While people appreciate and want to see University Avenue picked up, we don't want it done at our community's expense," said Veronica Burt, an organizer with the advocacy group JUST Equity.

The plaintiffs include the St. Paul branch of the NAACP, the Community Stabilization Project, Pilgrim Baptist Church, and several local businesses and residents.

The lawsuit argues that the project to build the light rail line along University Avenue is part of a long history of displacing African American community members. In the initial complaint filed in U.S. District Court, the plaintiffs say the project will increase taxes, raise rental prices, divide the community, reduce parking, interrupt business, and gentrify the neighborhood.

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St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood was a thriving African American business and residential district, before being destroyed in the 1950s and '60s to build Interstate 94. 

"Here we are, we would be sandwiched in between two major infrastructure projects, I-94 and the light rail, and that's just isolating our community even more," Burt said. 

The initial complaint names the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Metropolitan Council, and the Federal Transit Administration as defendants.

In a statement released Tuesday, Met Council Chair Peter Bell defended the agency's planning process. 

"I am very disappointed that these groups have chosen to file a lawsuit against the Met Council and the Central Corridor LRT project," Bell said. "I am firmly convinced that the project will help spur the revitalization already occurring in the corridor and provide improved access to employment, educational and economic opportunities for its residents."

Bell said that planners might be able to add "one or two" additional stops on the light rail line to better accommodate area residents, but that he "cannot envision the budget being large enough to address the wide range of concerns raised by these groups."

The Department of Transportation and the FTA did not immediately return calls for comment. 

The lawsuit asks the court to issue an injunction to halt the transit project until planners fully examine the project's impact on the community and make plans to mitigate any negative outcomes.

Community activists have previously called for a property tax moratorium for area residents and business owners to help offset the effects of possible gentrification. Burt said she would also like the city to designate several areas specifically for affordable residential and commercial space. 

The University of Minnesota also filed suit against the Metropolitan Council in September, arguing that vibration and electromagnetic interference from the transit service will harm research efforts. The University and the Met Council have entered into negotiations to address the concerns.

Transit officials say construction of the light rail line will begin later this year, with service scheduled to start in 2014.