University Avenue property owners fight condemnation efforts

Mai Lee
Store owner Mai Lee reaches for some roast pork at Star Oriental Market on St. Paul's University Avenue. A parcel near her store is needed for the construction of the Central Corridor light-rail project. Lee thought that meant she might have to move her business, but project planners say that she will be allowed to stay open.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

The Minnesota Department of Transportation heads to court Thursday to begin condemnation proceedings for more than a dozen slivers of land needed for the Central Corridor project. The light-rail line will connect St. Paul to Minneapolis.

One one level, property acquisitions are just procedural, but the process hasn't been entirely smooth for some businesses and property owners.

The number of properties entering the realm of eminent domain points to the complicated business of doing a $1 billion transit project in the heart of an urban area. Light-rail planners are seeking, among other things, temporary easements for sidewalk space and small portions of front yards on University Avenue.

At Star Oriental Market on University Avenue, store owner Mai Lee is behind the deli counter, arranging crispy chicken legs onto a tray. Roast pork and duck are hanging inside a glass case.

Lee says she was concerned she might have to relocate her business when she received a condemnation notice from MnDOT. The letter ordered all occupants on the property to vacate the premises by Oct. 7.

"We were worried because we haven't found any place yet. So where are we going to move?" she said.

What Lee didn't understand was that the parcel in question was 450 square feet of private property along the sidewalk, a couple of doors down from her business. That was the property that had to be vacated, not the building itself. MnDot sent her a letter because she is a tenant.

Metric Giles
Homeowner and housing activist Metric Giles is one of several property owners who is headed for court Thursday on a condemnation case related to the Central Corridor light-rail project. Giles says the project needs about five feet of his front yard during construction. Giles rejected the initial offer for the easement.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Condemnation proceedings have begun because the property owner has rejected an offer for a temporary easement.

Central Corridor spokeswoman Laura Baenen, of the Metropolitan Council, says she understands Mai Lee's confusion.

"I, myself, would probably be confused if I got that letter," said Baenen. "The takeaway from this ought to be to other businesses on the corridor: If you get a letter like this about condemnation or anything else, to please let us know. And we will get someone to meet with you to get things figured out."

Baenen says business owners and residents who have questions about the project should call 651-602-1940.

Central Corridor outreach workers have met the market owners before the letter was sent out, and have contacted them this week again to set the record straight after a reporter informed Baenen of the misunderstanding.

"We have explained, 'We don't want your building. We don't want to operate a grocery store. You don't have to leave,'" she said.

Baenen says while the project has no plans to take out entire homes or businesses, there might be some instances where it would make sense to relocate some businesses, including small studios, if the noise or vibration levels can't be resolved.

The Central Corridor line will almost entirely run on public right-of-way, but about 140 parcels are needed to give construction crews room to work and to build culverts and other amenities. Not all of those parcels are on track for condemnation, as some of the property owners have already agreed on the offer price.

Yet the use of eminent domain has always been touchy, especially in the corridor. That's in part because about 60 years ago, just a few blocks from University Avenue, the government condemned entire businesses and homes to make way for Interstate 94. The area, called Rondo, was home to St. Paul's largest concentration of African-Americans, and some black residents say their community never recovered.

Homeowner Metric Giles, an activist with the Community Stabilization Project, is part of a Rondo-area group suing over Central Corridor. And he's also one of the property owners headed to court over the condemnation case. The project needs about five feet of his front yard, right on University Avenue.

Giles says a real estate representative from MnDOT has done all of the negotiating so far.

"The way it's been conducted, is, 'OK, we're going to be nice to you, and as long as you sign on the dotted line, we're going to be Minnesota Nice. But if you don't sign, we're going to do it anyway,'" Giles said.

If the Met Council and an individual property owner can't agree on a price, a panel of commissioners will hear the case and decide just compensation. The case could eventually go before a jury trial.

Giles says he initially rejected the offer, in part because he still has outstanding concerns about the project. He says the planners haven't adequately addressed questions of gentrification, jobs and neighborhood traffic.

But Giles' front yard and other slivers of land aren't considered the big-ticket items to acquire. The project may also condemn the site of a vacant bank building in downtown St. Paul, and the site of the old Gillette shampoo factory. Negotiations are continuing.

The project has budgeted a total of $26 million for property acquisitions. The Met Council has declined to say how much it has offered for individual properties and easements.

Meanwhile, major construction of the light-rail project will likely begin next week, just blocks from the Capitol.

Minnesota Public Radio is one of three parties that has sued over the Central Corridor. The case is pending.

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