All aboard: St. Paul’s Green Line is ready to roll – Knight Foundation

All aboard: St. Paul’s Green Line is ready to roll

Photo: Green Line trains in St. Paul by Michael Hicks on

MINNEAPOLIS-ST. PAUL — When developers of the Central Corridor light rail line—now named the Green Line—began construction on the project in 2010, they knew they had to be more than on time and on budget. Community expectations and apprehension were both very high. Now that construction is completed and the trains are set to start running June 14, organizers, residents and business owners are looking forward to reaping rewards that will make the hardships seem worthwhile. Related PRESS RELEASE 

The Green Line project, which cost $957 million, will connect the downtowns of St. Paul and Minneapolis along University Avenue, a primary residential thoroughfare between the Twin Cities. It will offer riders stops from the state Capitol to Target Field—home of the Minnesota Twins—with crucial stops in between, including St. Paul’s Frogtown and Midway neighborhoods, the area near state Highway 280 where the cities meet, and the East Bank of the University of Minnesota.

It’s the third passenger rail line in the Twin Cities, joining the Blue Line that runs from the Mall of America and the Northstar commuter line that runs from the far northwestern suburbs. A line running from the southwest suburbs is set to begin preliminary engineering in the fall, with the feasibility of other lines being studied.

City officials, neighborhood groups, and others had high hopes for the Green Line from the beginning. They wanted to make sure that the light rail line lifted up local communities, not simply passed through them. To make sure that this happened, Knight Foundation joined with 11 other foundations to create the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative.

Conceived as a 10-year initiative in 2007, the collaborative has focused on helping minimize disruptions to residents and businesses during construction while promoting efforts that lead to economic growth along the line. The Green Line is being credited with spurring $2.5 billion in development to date. The collaborative plans to continue its work for approximately two more years.

“We’ve always been focused on development beyond the rails,” says Jonathan Sage-Martinson, director of the Funders Collaborative. “Our work will continue that focus.”

The collaborative has worked with partners around issues they identified as important to the community: business development, affordable housing, bike/pedestrian transit connections, and parks and green spaces. While organizers acknowledge that it may take years to fully produce the results communities want to see, they are pleased that those issues are on the radar.

Another boost to neighborhood development and improvement is the recently announced Knight Green Line Challenge, a three-year, $1.5 million commitment from Knight Foundation seeking projects that will benefit St. Paul neighborhoods along the Green Line. The Saint Paul Foundation is administering the challenge, which will accept applications from June 24 to July 24.

“Now it’s about what happens in those neighborhoods beyond the construction phase,” says Polly M. Talen, Knight Foundation’s St. Paul program director and co-chair of the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative. “We want those alliances to continue. What we’ve been working for these last seven years is part of a 30-year process.”

Bumps in the road

The Green Line project had its challenges. Even before shovels hit the ground, there was a legal tussle with the University of Minnesota over how construction would affect the delicate equipment in its laboratories.

More common were the concerns expressed by business owners along the corridor about how the project would impact them. Of the 1,400 retail and nonretail businesses on corridor, 100 closed and 26 moved off the corridor during construction, according to recent figures. But 128 new businesses opened during that time, and 27 moved to a different location along the line.

Some businesses survived with help from the Funders Collaborative and its partners, who coordinated millions of dollars in mitigation funding for businesses that were struggling during construction.

Other businesses took matters into their own hands. Mary Leonard, owner of Chocolate Celeste on Transfer Road just north of the Green Line, moved from her previous location near Highway 280 almost as soon as construction started.

“I could already see that with the road being torn up, there weren’t going to be any parking spaces in front of my building, and there was no parking lot,” says Leonard.

Fortunately Leonard found a spot near an established bakery, Buttercream, to complement her gourmet chocolate business. She had a new kitchen built and bought a billboard directing drivers (and soon, Green Line passengers) to Chocolate Celeste. Even though Leonard estimates that she lost six figures’ worth of revenue during construction, she could thrive once the trains start running.

“I’m in wait-and-see mode, but I’m optimistic,” Leonard says. “Business is improving every day.”

Lessons learned

Residents along the corridor are also glad to have construction done and are looking forward to a new transit option. Monte Hanson has lived a couple blocks from the intersection of University and Fairview avenues since 2000, and will probably take the Green Line to his job in downtown St. Paul.

“It would take me right to my door at work,” says Hanson. “It will be probably be even more valuable for recreation in downtown St. Paul or near the University, since parking is so bad there.”

Minnesota is one of the Midwest’s most active states when it comes to light rail construction, and lessons learned during the Green Line project will not only help future local developments—such as a rail line connecting Minneapolis to its southwest suburbs—but also similar projects in other cities.

“We’ve learned that with something this complex, shared knowledge and understanding is crucial in helping everyone arrive at major decisions,” says Talen of Knight Foundation.

Sage-Martinson agrees. “A broad lesson has been the power of stakeholders coming together across sectors and across geographies. It’s been a process of hammering out a set of joint priorities and pursuing them.”

Dan Heilman is a St. Paul-based writer.

Stations along the rail will host parties on Saturday, June 14, to celebrate the opening of the Green Line. Visit for details.