The Minneapolis-St. Paul area has always been, quite literally, a tale of two cities, but soon the two will be a little more united. With this month’s opening of a new light-rail line—the largest public works project in the state’s history—the two Twin City downtowns are going to be connected by rail for the first time since an old streetcar system went defunct in the 1950s.
Behind the massive amounts of planning and funding that went into the Green Line construction is a unique program that aims to do something that most large infrastructure projects fail miserably on: Help existing communities along the transit corridor flourish, rather than flounder, during and after the construction.
"We’ve heard this effort being referred to as the most coordinated effort to prevent displacement that has ever been done," says Ben Hecht, the CEO of Living Cities, a collaborative of the world’s largest foundations that made the work possible through an innovative program called The Integration Initiative.
Working from a combination of grants and loans from Living Cities and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Corridor of Opportunities project brought people together from government, nonprofits, businesses, and the local community to collaborate on developing the Green transit line (and other future lines like it) a little differently.
"We said, ‘Alright, we’re building this billion dollar line between Minneapolis and St. Paul. Let’s make sure to capitalize on this investment, and make sure we are not leaving people behind," says Mary Kay Bailey, project director for Corridors of Opportunity project. "Infrastructure projects of the past have tended to hurt neighborhoods, and predominantly those neighborhoods are mostly people of color," she says (In the Twin Cities case, see Interstate 94).
The strategy involved financing seven mixed-income and affordable housing development, as well as about two dozen smaller projects and market research studies that would not only bolster the communities disrupted by construction and but also protect them from inevitably rising land values in the future.
The motto around a program to help small businesses, many run by immigrants from Southeast Asia who had long lived in the community, became: "Protect, survive, thrive." Of 350 businesses that received assistance during the period of heavy construction, only four folded—a rate that reflects business-as-usual rather than disaster unfolding, Bailey says. The partnership also funded facade and infrastructure improvements to help businesses improve their own look.
What’s most interesting about the project, however, is the broader philosophy that the Integration Initiative brought to the work. Around the country, the initiative is working to provide cities with the funds and motivation to envision new ways of tackling major urban challenges, whether that is around schools and health or transit and affordable housing.
For the last three years, the initiative has provided a total of $85 million in grants, low-interest loans, and market-rate loans to five cities, including Newark, Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, and Minneapolis-St. Paul, and recently added five more to the program. The goal? To get everyone who has a stake in the city’s future working together to tackle a specific problem. In Minneapolis’s case, that meant setting a course towards more "transit-oriented development."
"There’s hunger right now to basically stop just doing simple projects, and actually starting changing the underlying systems that are broken," says Hecht. "Everyone has their own little pet projects, but it doesn’t always add up to a whole lot . . . We’re helping to build a new type of urban practice that is actually about large-scale results."
For the Minneapolis-St. Paul project, that meant getting the city governments and transit agencies on board early in the rail-planning process—they created city staff jobs devoted to transit-oriented development and passed laws that changed the system, such as assigning greater weight to affordable housing projects located near transit.
"They have spent billions of dollars on rail line. The question is whether the effort is going to change the way they work. By making that change to their system about how light rail is planned, we made a permanent change."
Now other cities, like Detroit, are trying to mimic the Twin City work. That’s also part of the goal of The Integration Initiative. "You’ve got 10 cities now comparing notes," says Brian Reilly, The Integration Initiative's director.
Images credited to Central Corridor Funders Collaborative