First community forum kicks off dialogue on affordable housing along Central Corridor

August 16, 2011

By Kelly Koster, LISC Community Scribe

The forthcoming light rail along St. Paul’s Central Corridor has stirred mixed emotions, especially around its impact on affordable housing. To create an open dialogue, over 75 representatives from the nonprofit, public, and community sectors came together on July 20 at the Profile Event Center on University Ave.

This was the first of three community forums sponsored by the Big Picture Project, whose goal is to align affordable housing plans in ways that benefit residents and create a greater sense of place along the Corridor. That planning would include not only new construction, but the preservation and stabilization of existing affordable housing.

The first forum, Gathering What We Know, centered on lessons learned from transit development in Seattle and an overview  of the Central Corridor Framing Document, including existing housing policies and plans, demographic and land use maps, and national case studies of six comparable transit corridors across the country.

Learning from Seattle: Transit-oriented Development

The forum began with a presentation from Ryan Curren from the City of Seattle’s Office of Housing, who shared challenges and success stories from his work with two development planning processes in Seattle’s Rainier Valley.  

Curren asserts that the Central Corridor and Rainier Valley share many similarities. In both areas, 23% of the residents live below the poverty line. People of color make up 44% of the Central Corridor and 70% of the Rainier Valley.

The construction of the light rail along Central Corridor gives that area great potential for what’s called transit-oriented development (TOD). TOD refers to development that includes a mixture of housing, office, retail, and other amenities that are integrated into walkable neighborhoods located within a short distance of public transit.

There’s clear evidence that transit and affordable housing are linked. A recent Brookings Institution analysis found 7% of workers in the 100 largest metro areas rely on public transit for their commutes. For lower income residents the share is 11%.

 “In Seattle, we talk about 20-minute neighborhoods,” said Curren. “Wherever you live, you should be within 20 minutes of amenities.”  

He admitted that Seattle’s first round of TOD planning in 2000 was inadequate; too much conflict resulted in a lawsuit. “It’s amazing that you’re having this conversation now and getting the planning done correctly up front,” he said. 

Seattle’s second round of planning for the Rainier Valley in 2005 worked much better. It was more comprehensive, involving all levels of government and seniors, youth, and residents from the area’s Vietnamese, Chinese, and African American communities. 

Curren emphasized that public/private collaborations are key to TOD success. He cited the Multi-Family Tax Exemption as a popular program which rewards development in urban markets by providing 12 years of property tax exemption, a policy that is updated every two years to stay abreast of market flucuation.

“You want the incentive to be greater than the cost of developing affordable housing,” said Curren. “It’s the one major tool we have in the private market to provide affordability.”

Curren also encouraged the group to consider how incorporating affordable housing into an appraisal affects the land value now and in the future. In the Rainier Valley, little slices of land were purchased without considering what might be build on the site and only a few slices were an appropriate size for transit-oriented development. 

“That resulted in parcels near the stations that were not being used. It wasn’t promoting ridership, jobs, or producing revenue,” said Curren. 

A range of reactions and concerns

After Curren’s presentation, city staff and other project partners shared highlights from the framing document. Then participants engaged in small group discussions and reported back to the large group. 

Common themes that emerged from these discussions included:

  • finding balance between regional and local efforts
  • ensuring green space is considered in development
  • balancing short-term needs with long-term goals
  • encouraging mixed-income and mixed-generation living spaces
  • investing in homes, not just units, and
  • protecting existing affordable housing

“We want to create economic opportunities that benefit and align with community values,” said one participant. For example, many expressed interest in a Cultural Heritage Center along the Central Corridor, much like the Midtown Global Market on Lake Street in Minneapolis. 

It was clear that displacement is a great fear among St. Paul residents living along the Central Corridor. Participants strongly expressed the need to protect the affordable housing that exists right now.

 “We need incentives for landlords to stay with Section 8,” said Sarah Nichols, a member of The District Councils Collaborative. “If we’re going to do a Corridor-wide goal for new development, we need to keep what’s already there—and strike a balance between not displacing people but also making improvements.”  

Karen Todd from the Greater Frogtown CDC voiced concern over 300 vacant properties in the Thomas Dale neighborhood. “We’re going to lose most of our housing stock if we don’t support our existing units,” she said. 

Rodney Brown from Lutheran Social Services reminded the group of the African American and Native American communities’ number one concern—unemployment, which disproportionately affects these groups. “The community engagement model in Seattle struck us,” said Brown referring to his small group. “It would be good to have hubs or captains like that to make sure all those voices are being heard.” 

 “We have city-wide housing targets and goals,” said Luis Pereira, from Saint Paul Planning and Economic Development. “We haven’t done neighborhood specific affordable housing goals, although that’s something we’re thinking about for Central Corridor.” Pereira also stated that Frogtown Square and Dale St. in the Western corridor are the areas most ready for development according to recent studies.

Jan Morlock from the University of Minnesota said that affordability means something different to the university area. “What we’re missing are affordable places for working people and aging people to live,” she said. 

Elizabeth Wampler, from Reconnecting America/Center for Transit Oriented Development, agreed and emphasized the need to ensure all senior housing isn’t isolated to one station and different types of housing are mixed along the Corridor.

While many voices were heard during the forum, participants were united in their hope for maximizing the opportunities for affordable housing along the light rail. 

“Transit isn’t a privilege,” said Curren. “It’s important to provide housing options so that everyone can access transit, and to involve the community in identifying how to make that happen.”

What’s next?

The next step in The Big Picture project will involve formulating a range of scenarios for how affordable housing could be addressed along the Corridor for the community to consider. A project team will then create recommendations based on the preferred scenario for the final forum in September.

The Big Picture is hosted by the Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul and Twin Cities LISC, and supported by the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative.

The next community forum, Reviewing the Options, will be August 24 from 6-8 p.m. at the Wilder Center, 451 Lexington Pkwy N St. Paul. For registration details, contact Gretchen Nicholls at