As Light-Rail Work Shrinks Parking on University Avenue, Businesses Say They Must Adapt or Die

Nov. 26, 2018
Up and down University Avenue, YaYa and retailers like her are bracing for an unforgiving construction season. A few have closed or relocated. Others are reinventing themselves by taking second jobs, offering delivery, sharing parking or turning to the Internet for survival.

Patricia Y has a colorful r?sum?, and these days, she's thinking of polishing it.

The former DJ, known as 'YaYa' to most everybody, runs the Edge Coffee House in St. Paul near the corner of University and Raymond avenues, where construction of the Central Corridor light-rail line began in earnest this month, eliminating traffic lanes and parking meters for her entire block.

"People would stop in front, run in, get a coffee and go to work," YaYa said. "That's gone. ... Right now, two-fifths of my business is gone."

To compensate, she has resorted to making her own baked goods instead of ordering them from local stores. She's thought up different flavors of Rice Krispie treats. She's about to advertise home delivery. And she's taken a second, part-time job bartending at Lindey's Prime Steak House in Arden Hills.

It still may not be enough.

"I ain't going nowhere until I have to," YaYa said, contemplating the day when she may have to call it quits.

Up and down University Avenue, YaYa and retailers like her are bracing for an unforgiving construction season. A few have closed or relocated. Others are reinventing themselves by taking second jobs, offering delivery, sharing parking or turning to the Internet for survival.

The $957 million light-rail project entered its "heavy construction" phase this month near University and Raymond avenues. Work is reducing University Avenue traffic to one lane in each direction and closing southern access from the avenue to several side streets. In 2014, the line will connect downtown St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis.

Business owners say the concrete jersey barriers down what eventually will be a track corridor aren't the worst of their worries. The 11-mile project will eliminate 975 parking spots along University Avenue, or 85 percent of the avenue's on-street parking.

Those parking spots aren't coming back. And by the time light rail rolls in 2014, city officials plan to install parking meters on the 195 spots remaining along the avenue to encourage customer turnover. The overall vision is to create a transit corridor that is accessible to and dominated by pedestrians and public transit, instead of vehicular traffic.

"We're looking forward to it," said Bill Ladwig, a digital-imaging manager with MTS Business Solutions, which shares an off-street lot with other businesses off University and Prior avenues. "We think it might give us more business once it's complete."

City officials say the loss of parking isn't as severe as it sounds. At least two studies have noted that off-street parking along University Avenue is heavily underused. In 2006, a report by the Midway Transportation Management Organization found that even at peak periods, only about 40 percent to 60 percent of off-street parking sites were occupied.

In fact, studies showed more than 15,000 off-street parking spaces within a block of the avenue, and 25,000 spaces in private lots within a quarter-mile of the future transit stations.

Those numbers may sound high, but some business advocates say the city hasn't done enough to facilitate conversations between the owners of vacant or underused lots and business owners.

Getting drivers to those lots takes signs and coordination. "The issue is access," said Va-Megn Thoj, executive director of the Asian Economic Development Association. "Right now, we need the city to work with the lot owners."

City officials say they're doing what they can with the resources they have, but they say property owners also need to take the initiative to work together.

And that's exactly what some business owners are doing.

Barbara Hunn, founder of Keys Cafe and Bakery on Raymond Avenue, said a U.S. Bank branch across the street makes its lot available to her customers on weekends.

In turn, she opens the seven parking spots in her back lot to customers of nearby Sharrett's Liquors after she closes at 3 p.m.

"We are encouraging business and property owners to use their entrepreneurial creativity to find ways to share off-street parking," said Craig Blakely, a city planner.

That's appreciated, but it's still not enough, says Sharrett's co-owner Dana Rose. His father started the corner shop at University and Raymond as a pharmacy in 1949, and Rose converted it into a liquor store in 1977. He'd hate to see it close.

But he and co-owner Jim Forsland recently saw all the parking on their block of University Avenue disappear, and he said last weekend's sales were down by about 15 percent -- a decline that might not be sustainable.

"The main thing is parking, parking, parking," Rose said. "You can only survive so much on walk-up business."

The city has begun using recently acquired license-plate-recognition technology to enforce new two-hour parking limits from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on nearby Charles Avenue and Territorial Road. That means retail workers accustomed to parking along those streets will have to find new spots or move their cars several times a day.

"I don't know where my employees are going to park now," Rose said.

On the city's parking-management website ( 4bbypdb), the rationale for the two-hour limits is that they discourage customers and construction workers from camping out in a parking spot.

"It's good and bad," said Hunn, the Keys Cafe founder. "For me as a business, it's good, because people aren't going to park there all day. They can't. For people who work in the area, it's bad, because now they don't know where to park."

City officials say they haven't turned a deaf ear to parking concerns. They've outlined a "Top Ten" list ( ) of approaches to manage parking during and after construction. In key locations, they're testing parking meters that accept credit cards and repaving alleys parallel to the avenue to turn them into better access routes to off-street lots.

The city's Housing and Redevelopment Authority has put $150,000 toward creating a shared parking lot at the northwest corner of University Avenue and Dale Street. The HRA is even farther along with plans to put $250,000 toward leasing land behind businesses in the northwest corner of University and Snelling avenues, with surrounding property owners assessed for the operating costs, including the rent.

The city is also offering businesses $1.3 million in "forgivable" loans of up to $25,000 apiece so they can improve their existing off-street lots. The loans "disappear," gradually, over seven years.

City officials have called those terms generous, but Mary Leonard isn't convinced. She considers added debt another nightmare for a small business. "No, I won't take out more loans," said Leonard, owner of Chocolat Celeste at University Avenue and Minnesota 280.

Actually, that's her former location. Anticipating a sharp drop in walk-in business during light-rail construction, Leonard shuttered her 10-year-old store in May, rethought her business plan and reopened in October on Transfer Road, in a business park near the Amtrak station. Walk-in customers once constituted 85 percent of her clientele, but that number has dropped to half.

Now, a good 30 percent of her sales are business-to-business -- personalized packages for law firm office parties and other corporate special events.

Leonard supports the idea of a light-rail transit line connecting the two downtowns. She just wishes it didn't involve losing all the parking in front of her old location.

"I have said many times that I'm pro light rail. I believe in it," Leonard said. "But I wasn't going to make it through long construction periods of not being accessible. This week, there's a fence up on the sidewalk of where I was formerly located. It's a complete chain-link fence drilled into the sidewalk."

Frederick Melo can be reached at 651-228-2172.

St. Paul parking study:

St. Paul parking-management efforts: