See more of the story

Some north Minneapolis business owners in the W. Broadway corridor, the area's cultural and commercial heart, say they're feeling increasingly uneasy as plans pick up for the Blue Line extension light-rail project to cut through the diverse district.

"It feels to me like another version of Rondo — what was told to Rondo residents in terms of what was happening with I-94 and ultimately what was done, with the displacement of residents everywhere," Cynthia Wilson of the Minneapolis NAACP said at a recent Blue Line advisory committee meeting.

"We're for the light rail, but just not in our area. When people say they don't want it, you don't force-feed it to us."

The specter of Rondo — the predominantly Black neighborhood in St. Paul that was wiped out when construction of Interstate 94 began in the 1950s — looms large in community discussions about the light-rail project, which transit planners champion as potentially transformational for economically challenged communities along the line.

A more-definitive route through north Minneapolis is expected to be recommended by transit planners this year, though a final decision isn't expected until next year.

But many business owners on W. Broadway worry they will have to move, given the typically uncertain and lengthy timeline for light-rail construction. They fear their hard-won businesses — and their livelihoods — will fold because of that uncertainty, or that their buildings will be taken by eminent domain.

And they're concerned about the possible loss of parking and potential rise of crime once the trains start running, as well as traffic issues when light-rail tracks are squeezed into a busy retail corridor.

Some have warily followed the travails of the $2.7 billion Southwest light-rail line — beset with controversy, cost overruns, delays and a probe by the state Legislative Auditor Office.

"We don't want that mess. It's like history is repeating itself over and over," said Teto Wilson, who owns Wilson's Image, a barbershop and community gathering space on W. Broadway.

Last spring, the West Broadway Business and Area Coalition, a local business advocacy group, wrote an open letter to the Metropolitan Council and Hennepin County, the two bodies that will decide the route, opposing the project and demanding details on how the light-rail line will affect the historic commercial district.

The letter states that opposition to the project will continue until those details are provided "clearly and transparently."

"Someone needed to stand up and say, 'You know what? This isn't working for our community,'" said Kristel Porter, the coalition's executive director.

Uncertain schedule

Officials with the Met Council, which is building the line, say construction will begin by 2026 at the earliest with service expected to commence between 2028 and 2030. But that depends on the "community processes" and federal funding, project spokeswoman Laura Baenen said. Before the W. Broadway alignment entered the picture, the project in 2019 was estimated to cost $1.54 billion.

Met Council planners say they have held more than 300 events and connected with more than 11,000 people, to better understand the community's needs and concerns.

The council has contracted with a dozen community and cultural organizations "to increase feedback and representation from low-income and communities of color." Baenen said the council has reached out to the West Broadway coalition to "discuss their concerns in detail."

Hennepin County paid $290,000 to the University of Minnesota's Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA) to study potential displacement of residents and businesses along the Blue Line extension route — displacement that may result from skyrocketing rents, evictions and property taxes as real estate developers move in to capitalize on improved transit.

A 26-member work group consisting of residents and business owners along the route, representatives from the philanthropic community, government agencies and people who were displaced by previous transit projects met for more than a year and released a 206-page report last month. Their recommendations include grants and technical assistance for businesses affected by the project, and the creation of community land trusts to preserve affordable retail space.

"The construction impacts are large, especially for small businesses," said C Terrence Anderson, CURA's director of community-based research. "People don't want to travel to construction zones so there's a lot of challenges for businesses to sustain those loss of receipts."

Anderson said news of the looming Blue Line extension project has already caused displacement in the corridor. "If there are no anti-displacement measures, then of course, there's going to be a lot of opposition to the project," he said.

At a recent Hennepin County Board meeting, Jackson George, a Brooklyn Park-based businessman who is president of the Liberian Business Association, said the Blue Line extension will bolster the suburban economies of Brooklyn Park, Crystal and Robbinsdale.

While initially hesitant about the project, George said, he enthusiastically rode light rail for the first time as a member of the anti-displacement work group. But, he said, small businesses will need help to ride out the construction period.

"It will be a challenge," he said, adding that the benefits will outweigh the risks.

At the same meeting, County Board Chair Irene Fernando embraced last month's report. A North Sider, she said there are few places to celebrate the anti-displacement effort in her Harrison neighborhood, alluding to the possible benefits of improved transit.

"It's remarkable that we have no place to gather," she said. "There are 80,000-something residents and we barely have places to get groceries."

Skepticism remains. Word has been spreading in the past two years about light rail coming to the neighborhood, but for many locals hard-and-fast information about the project has been lacking.

"I know they said they did a lot of community engagement since 2020, but a lot of people don't know what's going on, and people weren't gathering during COVID," Wilson said. "It feels like more of the same — what government has been doing to our community for a long time."

Jordan Purkat, who works at the nonprofit bakery Cookie Cart on W. Broadway, said he can envision a scenario where developers move in and raise rents once light-rail service starts.

"It seems like corporate interests are going to do what they want to do," he said. "Minneapolis is becoming one big apartment building, and no one can afford the rent."

Such concerns prompted state Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, a DFLer who represents the area, to include an amendment in the recently adopted transportation bill calling for community engagement meetings on the Blue Line extension — and requiring representatives from the Met Council, Hennepin County and the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to attend.

"What we have here is the perfect intersection of uncertainty," Champion said last week.

The new law sets July 1 as a deadline for transit planners to create a framework for the community meetings, where information about the project will be circulated to a constituency clearly worried about what could be Minnesota's last light-rail line.

Original plans foiled

The original Blue Line extension route, which largely bypassed the most populated and transit-dependent areas of north Minneapolis, was set aside in 2020 after the Met Council failed to reach an agreement with BNSF Railway to share much of the right-of-way.

In 2021, the Met Council and Hennepin County announced the new route, choosing W. Broadway instead of Lowry Avenue. The route needs final approval from the council, the county and every city along the line, including Minneapolis.

"In the process of that shift away from the railroad, we discovered, 'Oh my gosh, we can provide even greater access and benefits to communities," Met Council Chair Charlie Zelle said at a Blue Line advisory committee meeting in May. All told, some $143 million has been spent on planning the line.

For now, several iterations are being considered for the route along W. Broadway and through north Minneapolis, according to a 2022 report. One option has it entirely following W. Broadway, leaving two lanes for traffic and perhaps additional turning lanes, but limited or no on-street parking similar to University Avenue along the Green Line.

Another possibility involves running light-rail trains along 21st Avenue N., a largely residential block just north of W. Broadway. A different variation calls for trains to head northwest on W. Broadway and return to downtown using 21st Avenue N.

The report shows two stops on W. Broadway — at Emerson/Fremont Avenue and Penn Avenue. A combination of routes snaking trains through the North Loop between Target Field and W. Broadway will be studied further.

An early plan for light-rail trains to travel along Lyndale Avenue to W. Broadway met with furious opposition from residents of Lyn Park, a suburban-like enclave in north Minneapolis. The Met Council pivoted and announced plans to also study a different route along Washington Avenue, east of I-94.