Light rail will affect disability service business

Construction of Central Corridor light rail on University Avenue isn’t expected until 2011, but businesses are already making plans. Groups […]

01_dscn1558Construction of Central Corridor light rail on University Avenue isn’t expected until 2011, but businesses are already making plans. Groups including community development corporations, the University Avenue Business Association and others are working to pull together resources for business needs ranging from marketing to parking.

Later this year the City of St. Paul will be announcing its forgivable loan program for businesses wanting to make off-street parking improvements. Once light rail is built and begins operations in 2014, University Avenue will lose 85 percent of its on-street parking.

Craig Blakely of St. Paul Planning and Economic Development (PED) said the city has pulled together $500,000 to spend on shared off-street parking for businesses. Improvements can include lighting and landscaping, as well as space and signage for disabled-only parking improvements for access to businesses. The loans can be for up to $25,000.

The city has been studying parking issues for more than a year, and has identified 11 critical areas or hot spots where the loss of on-street parking could create hardships for University Avenue businesses. Those are areas where some resources may be directed first.

“We know the funds available aren’t enough to meet all of the needs but it’s a start,” Blakely said. The city’s hope is to find more funding in the future, through sources including Metropolitan Council Livable Communities funding. But a past effort to obtain a Metropolitan Council grant fell short.

The Metropolitan Council is covering the costs of construction of the rail line itself, which is at $914 million. But the costs of streetscape improvements, parking improvements and any business-related expenses are up to city and in some cases, private funding.

01-dscn1555The loss of on-street parking, including spots signed for persons with disabilities, will be a problem, said Blakely. “We are aware that this does create a hardship for businesses and individuals and we’re working to address that.”

Several businesses that serve the disability community are located along University Avenue. Light rail would provide easier access for their customers and employees, but it would take away needed on-street parking for some businesses.

Although some businesses have their own off-street parking, business owners and operators do have concerns about having to police or monitor their parking lots to keep out park-and-ride rail commuters or people who may be visiting other businesses in the area.

Handi Medical Supply, which supplies many items needed for community members, is located on University near Highway 280. The business will lose “two or three” on-street spaces due to light rail construction, said Mike Bailey of Handi Medical. “They’re convenient spots and they are used by customers.”

But Handi Medical is fortunate because the business has ample off-street parking on three sides, he added. The business already has to watch its lots and ask people who aren’t customers or employees to not park there.

Bailey said businesses have been able to find out information about resources and developments in light rail plans, through the city and Metropolitan Council. He has participated in community meetings to discuss the project. “The information provided has been helpful and kept us informed,” he said.

The Low Vision Store at University and Cretin/Van-dalia shares a large parking lot with other businesses in its strip mall. Owner Susan Nelson believes the store and its neighbors will have ample parking when rail comes through.

Nelson also said she sees benefits to customers and staff when light rail begins operations, for convenient access to the store. But she is worried most about how construction impact would be mitigated. “I think having the street torn up could hurt us.”