Lowertown yet to feel benefits of Central Corridor

Lowertown businesses
Lowertown St. Paul businesses along and adjacent to 4th Street are living with light rail construction, renovation of the nearby Union Depot and construction of a farmers market condo development.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

The Central Corridor light-rail line between Minneapolis and St. Paul will be the state's largest public works project ever, and a huge payday for thousands of workers.

However, some businesses along the line report sharp revenue losses as construction blocks access to them.

The builder of the line, the Metropolitan Council, says there's no reliable way to measure the impact, although it initially projected losses of nearly three percent to businesses during construction. But, in St. Paul's Lowertown, business owners say the losses are much larger.

One resident describes St. Paul's Lowertown as a perfect storm of construction.

Streets are torn up for light rail work. Then there's the renovation of the nearby Union Depot and construction on a long-stalled condominium development are also affecting access to streets and parking.

At the Tanpopo Noodle Shop, co-owner Koshiki Smith said she stopped serving lunch for the first time in the 11-year history of her restaurant because light-rail construction decimated her midday lunch crowd.

Smith estimated she's lost at least a fifth of her business.

"Probably about 20, 25 [percent] because closing lunch," said Smith.

Forty years ago, Lowertown -- on the eastern edge of downtown -- was a crumbling warehouse and industrial area.

Now it's a trendy neighborhood with bars, restaurants, apartments and a bustling weekend farmers market.

New to the mix is light rail, including the Central Corridor line's maintenance facility in an abandoned factory across the street from Smith's Tanpopo Noodle Shop.

Koshiki Yonemura
Tanpopo Noodle Shop owner Koshiki Yonemura Smith says light rail construction started last year and has resulted in elimination of many street and lot parking spaces which she says has caused her business to decline at least 20 percent prompting her to end lunch service and focus on the dinner menu.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

She said work crews last year closed and tore up nearby streets to move utility lines. Then, when light-rail construction resumed this year, many on-street and parking lot spaces disappeared.

"It's really hard right now," said Smith. "My main focus is to survive everyday throughout construction, try to communicate with people and know what's going on so we can communicate that to customers and not to lose our regulars."

A block away from Tanpopo Noodle Shop is the liquor store Wine and Spirits. Owner Gerry McInerney said his revenue loss is more than 17 percent.

The street in front of his store is dug up, on-street parking is gone.

McInerney is drawing attention to the economic stress connected with construction by labeling a nearby vacant storefront 'the Sarajevo cafe' a reference to the once war torn city.

McInerney said builders missed the deadline for repaving and reopening the street in time for last month's Lowertown art crawl, a major event for visitors and businesses.

Sara Remke, Black Dog Cafe owner
Black Dog Cafe owner Sara Remke in Lowertown St. Paul says she's created special evening music attractions to try to keep customer numbers up, but loss of parking due to light rail construction is affecting her business.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

"They didn't make that, and told us only five days before the art crawl that they wouldn't make that date, which is very inconsistent with communication," said McInerney. "They knew three weeks ahead of time they were having a significant problem."

A light rail spokeswoman said the construction schedule for that street was already ambitious, and a cold, wet spring delayed paving.

Both St. Paul and the Met Council are trying to cushion the economic blow to businesses.

Bright orange signs guide pedestrians to businesses and parking spots. There are weekly, even daily, construction updates on the Central Corridor Web page. A $4 million fund is available to help affected businesses with forgivable loans of up $20,000 per applicant.

Tanpopo Noodle Shop owner Koshiki Smith got a $6,000 loan and a $3,000 grant.

McInerney said he hasn't applied for the help so far, because of the time and expense involved.

The project's Web page urges viewers to patronize businesses affected by the project, and Central Corridor project manager Mark Fuhrmann said that effort is being expanded.

"We're going to offer some advertising for those businesses on the sides of our Metro Transit buses to help promote those businesses in a very cooperative way," said Fuhrmann.

The owners of Wine and Spirits and Tanpopo Noodle Shop say they support transit.

So does Sara Remke, one of the owners of Black Dog cafe across the street from the light rail maintenance facility.

"What we hope, you know, is that all the people super in favor of light rail is to remember that there are a lot of businesses that are going to be really hurt in the meantime, and, if you're a green person and if you believe in public transport, make an extra effort to support all those people. Everyone comes in and says, 'Oh, it's going to be great in 2014,' " said Remke. "Well, that's still three years away."

Next in line to experience the effects of light rail construction are Washington Avenue businesses in the Stadium Village area of Minneapolis adjacent to the University of Minnesota east bank campus.

Washington Avenue closes Monday.

It will become a transit mall for light rail, buses, emergency vehicles, pedestrians and bicycles -- but no cars and no on-street parking.

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