Monday, April 30, 2012

Light Rail is Business Friendly

Light Rail Myth #2 - "It's business friendly."

  Logic: I am in business (property flipping).
                I like light rail.
                Therefore, light rail is business friendly.

Can't argue with logic, except by quoting other business people and their experiences with Central Corridor (Metro Transit Green Line Light Rail).

“The light rail is killing all of us. It is beating us to death,” Pete Lebak said. For 32 years, Pete Lebak’s Barbershop has been on University Avenue. He talked with Molly Novak of the Minnesota Daily earlier this month. He had the time. The Central Corridor light rail construction has driven away more than half his customers.

Stores that counted  on street parking on University Avenue have been hardest hit, Hmong Pages said. Tam D. Vo’s Viva Video has lost about 90% of his business since the beginning of light rail contruction. Larida Thlang's Battom-Bonc has lost 80% of her customers. Ngoan Dang's Mai Village has lost 40% of his customers. According to the Highland Park Villager, Mai Village has lost $20,000 in sales since light rail construction began this spring. Star Tribune said Mai Village had to cut back on servers from ten to five. (Star Tribune: "To save Mai Village, It'll take a Village.)

Hai Truong, owner of Ngon Vietnamese Bistro, 799 University Av, St. Paul, likes light rail. But when the light rail workers from Walsh Construction parked in the one hour parking spots in front of his restaurant, he complained to a Central Corridor construction supervisor. So on Friday, June 29th, Walsh Construction workers picked the restaurant's sidewalk (front door to back patio) to sit and eat their lunches, according to the Pioneer Press story. Central Corridor officials promised to apologize to Truong. On Monday, July 2nd, Walsh light rail workers were again parked in front of the restaurant. (Pioneer Press story parts 1, 2, & 3...)

In Stadium Village, a Campus Pizza waitress told Reg Chapman at WCCO that she's been lucky to get a few tables of customers in six hours.

And Central Corridor light rail construction has blocked fire truck access, according to Joe Kimball at MinnPost. The fire department and Walsh Construction have some work arounds. Although some of Walsh "work arounds" are to drive dump trucks and front-end loaders down residential streets that parallel University Avenue, against contract specifications (Pioneer Press). Walsh Construction is a contributor to President Obama's campaign finance.

“Devastating is what it was to my business,” said Al Loth, owner of Midway Pro Bowl told Tom Steward of “My customers are not going to lug bowling balls on the train to come bowling,” Loth said. He and 207 other business received a total of $3.8 million but with sales losses of as much as 84%, the handouts were (nice, well-meaning) drops in a bucket.

The co-owner of Big Daddy’s Old Fashioned Barbeque at 625 University Ave W, Ron Whyte told the StarTribune “one day I looked up and they put a Port-A-Potty right at my front door! What kind of advertising is that for a restaurant? [Business] really, really went down when the work began, but we survived. Big picture? I’m not sure how it will work out. But I’m hoping it will.”

  On the bright side, shoplifting is down.

Crime is up and down University Avenue. KAAL-ABC, Austin, MN reports St. Paul police say the number of people getting robbed on the street is up along the Central Corridor light rail route, typically at bus stops and on street corners. In the past month, more than half of all the robberies in St. Paul were on University Avenue. But the construction is causing the number of other crimes to go down. Police have seen a 22 percent drop in in shoplifting in April through June of 2012 because businesses are not accessible.

It's not Earth-shattering, permanent damage.

Some permanent damage has been caused to the foundation of the Charles Building at 979 University Av due to the light rail construction tearing up University Av all the way to the building. Betty Charles, owner of the building and Shear Pleasure salon, told Finance-Commerce called the Central Corridor project staff and was told someone would visit soon.

Light rail construction damage has also been reported at Latuff Brothers Auto Body (outer brick facade), the Minnesota Da'Wah Institute (foundation damage, basement flooded), New Fashion (metal awning pulled away), and others according to a Minnesota Public Radio report.

Walsh Construction's work on the Central Corridor provided the basement of Marty's Second Hand Store accidental sunlight, according to a Pioneer Press story by Frederick Melo. A dozen other businesses on the 900 block of University Avenue have outstanding claims for damages.

Trends Lounge was the first business to fight through to a legal settlement of $7,500. Marty's Second Hand, Safety Care Inc, and Shear Pleasure hair salon each filed the maximum conciliation claim allowed in small-claims court ($10,000). In February 2014, those three businesses reached a settlement with Walsh Construction, days before their cases were scheduled to be heard, according to the Pioneer Press. However in April 2014, the Pioneer Press reported that despite the court victories, the businesses have not been paid by Walsh Construction. The three businesses returned to court on March 7th, but Walsh Construction failed to appear.

  It's not like businesses are closing.

Eisenberg's Market at 170 East 10th Street closed in October 2012 after 75 years downtown Saint Paul, a victim of light rail construction. Owner Max Eisenberg told Frederick Melo of the Pioneer Press, "According to the city [of Saint Paul], we never existed. You don't recall Mayor Coleman saying there's no grocery store downtown? Honestly, the last nail in the coffin has been the two years of light-rail construction. Our business dropped off 30 percent the minute they started light-rail construction again in April." 

General Nanosystems closed in July 2013, after suffering through the Central Corridor light rail construction. General Nanosystems, which opened in 1995, had sold and repaired computers at 3014 University Ave SE in Minneapolis. “It’s sad,” owner Khalid Mahmood told Meghan Holden of the Minnesota Daily, “The light rail has affected us quite a bit, unfortunately.”

Station 4 lost about $1 million due to two years of light rail construction on Fourth Street, co-owner Steve Ledin told the Star Tribune in June 2013. By April 2014, any plans for continuing Station 4 had ended and the building was put up for sale, according to the Pioneer Press.

Tony Panelli has closed his University Avenue restaurant Caribe Caribbean Bistro, after two years in business in what had been the job of his dreams. He'd lost over half his customers due to the construction. “Customers tell me they don’t want to come down here. Traffic is brutal, absolutely brutal,” Panelli told James Schugel of WCCO.

Campus Pizza, 825 Washington Av SE, closed in March 2015 after 56 years serving the University area. Light rail construction was a barrier to business but the long term effect was just as bad. “The light rail took off all the parking on Washington and that killed a lot of traffic,” co-owner Jim Rosvold told Barry Lytton of the Minnesota Daily. “It’s the sad end of a chapter.”

Midway Bookstore owner, Thomas Stransky, told Christopher Lancette of Fine Books Magazine, "We'll probably have to go out of business." He has battled the Central Corridor plans for two decades. Stransky said, "It's tough to get people to walk anywhere in a Minnesota winter. They're not going to walk from a transit station to get here. People aren't going to stop here when they drive by during construction, either. Traffic is going to be horrendous."

A Quiznos franchisee on Washington Avenue, Carla Harris, told the Star Tribune's Neal St. Anthony that she was "running negative cash flow." Iric Nathanson, of the Metropolitan Consortium of Community Developers, said, "Unless Carla can find a way to bring new customers into her store, she is facing the prospect of closing her business." Quiznos closed.

The Edge Coffee Shop at 2399 University Av W (at Raymond Av) and the Kentucky Fried Chicken at 1089 University Av W (at Lexington Av) have closed, according to Frederick Melo of the Pioneer Press.

  Have they told the mayor?

In August 2012, University Avenue business owners met with Saint Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and others, reported Josie Clarey of the Pioneer Press. Customers have had car damage from construction, including tires flattened by nails. Businesses like the M.A.I. Spine Center and United Medical Imaging expressed concerns about vibrations and noise from the construction and the eventual trains being disruptive to their businesses. Kunrath Van, owner of the Cheng Hang restaurant, was worried about not having sufficient funds for the property taxes due to tax increases and customer decreases. 

An article by Frederick Melo of the Pioneer Press reported on a survey of 64 businesses taken by the Asian Economic Development Association listing 237 business complaints:
          79 business access complaints
          47 utility problems, including 33 water shutoffs
          44 parking complaints
          19 dust and air-quality issues
          15 cancelled appointments
          vibrations blurring MRI scans
          overtime pay before or after daily construction
          vibrations dropped a speaker into a glass case

  But have they told the Central Corridor Commission?

In May 2012, Jim Segal, owner of Ax-man Surplus, compared the Central Corridor EIS -- that said businesses wouldn't lose more than 2 ½ percent of revenues -- to a roll of toilet paper, at a public hearing. Dan Heilman of Finance-Commerce reported Segal would lose $100,000 in revenue for just the first six months of construction. Segal said, “The pedestrian environment is going to be terrible while construction is ongoing, and there will be a permanent change to people’s driving and parking patterns. That wasn’t discussed in this report.” The owner of Impressive Print, Mike Baca, said, “This project is going to destroy businesses.” Added Value Improvements owner, Tim Holden said, “The planning on this has not been done correctly. Taking away parking has rendered the properties west of Snelling and University uninhabitable. My customers are confused – they don’t know where to park. Businesses up and down the avenue have not been accounted for.” Twin Cities Photography Group owner, Diane Pietro, said construction workers came in and tore up a newly renovated hallway to install water pipes. “This project is ruining my service. Families don’t want to come in and sit for a portrait when there are workers walking in and out. Both of our entrances are blocked and the sidewalks are closed.”
Read Dan Heilman's Finance-Commerce story for more details.

  Is that it? Disgruntled business owners?

No. Central Corridor has been faced with lawsuits from Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), the University of Minnesota, and a Rondo Neighborhood coalition (St. Paul branch of the NAACP, the Community Stabilization Project, Pilgrim Baptist Church, and several local businesses and residents). All of the lawsuits have been struck down. The Central Corridor Commission altered plans for the rail line running in front of the Minnesota Public Radio studios to include a (supposedly) sound dampening slab of cement over crushed rubber pieces. (Like that's going to work.)

Anyone out there know how potholes are formed? Water seeps into or around pavement, freezes and melts, expanding and contacting, expanding and contracting (rinse and repeat), pushing stuff like "shredded rubber tire pieces" aside, leaving empty pockets, and the slab of pavement breaks under pressure from a 25+ ton train. It's expensive (throw money at it) but not proven to do anything. If it does anything, three or four winters should undo it.

[March 1, 2016 update: Metro Transit settled one MPR lawsuit and agreed to pay MPR $3.5 million due to light rail trains rumbling, rattling, and shaking the Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) station. The 'floating slab' experiment failed. - MPR, Star Tribune, Pioneer Press]

The University of Minnesota wanted something similar to the MPR agreement (or similar to the University of Washington agreement with Sound Transit) for the eighteen research labs along Washington Avenue.

The Central Corridor Commission said, "No."

The Central Corridor opened in June 2014, but light rail trains conducting test runs in April 2014 were already disrupting recording operations at MPR. “The floor is vibrating, the ceiling is shaking, the structure is making noise, and that affects the recordings,” Nick Kereakos, chief technology officer and operations vice president for MPR told the Star Tribune.

Eleven intersections with freshly-poured cement already have cracks due to faulty work from Walsh Construction, according to Laura Baenen for Central Light Rail Corridor and James Walsh of the Star Tribune. “It should not have cracked this quickly.” In April 2014, Walsh construction crews were re-tearing out the intersection of University and Vandalia Street. It's just more business-friendly construction, plus the cost of rerouting traffic, signage, and more inspections.

Beautiful downtown Buffalo, New York got light rail running through it. They haven't recovered. They are talking about un-doing what was done.

To use a Colbertism: Is light rail good for business or great for business?

The Central Corridor - Green Line opened on June 14, 2014 and had 13 crashes and its first fatality by the end of August. In September 2014, the City of St. Paul assessed University Avenue properties $2.2 million for street improvements related to the light rail construction. Best Steak House owner Evangelos Hatzistamoulos told Tom Steward of Watchdog, “I think it sucks.” Hatzistamoulos received a $1,585.82 tax notice. Skip Brist, owner of American Radiator, has a $3,428 bill for street improvements caused by a light rail line he vowed to never ride. “When you’re talking about a little garage like mine, we have two stalls, the volume isn’t there anymore. In the end, none of it makes any sense.” [more]

In October and November 2014, a survey question was being asked:
17.  Please select your preference for the combination of travel lanes and parking lanes on University Avenue, from near Arthur Avenue in Minneapolis to Marion Street in St. Paul:  
___ I prefer University Avenue with two travel lanes and limited on-street parking.
___ I prefer University Avenue with one travel lane and one lane for parking on one or both sides.
The survey doesn't ask if the city should create mid-block parking lots, which works for congested portions of Grand Avenue, or any other options other than to make University Avenue more impassable. Parking lots could help University Avenue businesses, customers, and Green Line riders. Send your opinions to the City of St. Paul, the City of Minneapolis, Metropolitan Council, and the MN Department of Transportation.

Green line light rail trains have exceeded limits for electromagnetic interference along Washington Avenue through the University of Minnesota's research corridor. The University voted to give Metro Transit one more year to figure a solution. - May 2015

“Nearly 80 percent of the 204 business owners that responded to a survey by Wilder Research said they’ve lost business since construction started in 2011.”
 - Finance-Commerce, August 2015

“Half of all businesses said they still don’t have enough parking... Service businesses reported somewhat fewer disruptions than shops that sold products, the survey found... The Metropolitan Council said that as of June 2014, when the line opened, 134 businesses had opened and 121 had closed or moved away.”
 - Star-Tribune, August 2015

Light Rail Construction in Charlotte - April 14, 2015
“Our customers are surprised we're even surviving right now,” said Evan Perez, owner of Touch of Precision Barber Lounge. [WSOC-TV]

Light Rail Closes Barbeque After 58 Years - Charlotte, NC - April 4, 2015
The Old Hickory House BBQ in North Tryon has a 60% decrease in business due to LYNX blue line light rail construction. [WCNC-36, WSOC-9]

Light Rail Moves Hardware - Charlotte, NC - November 28, 2014
Faulk Brothers hardware owner Gerald Simpson told Don Boekelheide at the Charlotte Observer that he moved his store away from the LYNX blue line extension light rail project for several reasons. The design of the light rail project posed major problems, Simpson said. The light rail project makes parking and vehicle access difficult, if not impossible, at the hardware store. “There will be no parking in front of the old store, no room to maneuver. How am I going to get pickups hauling trailers or box trucks in and out?” Simpson said.

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