By TOM LAVENTURE
AAP staff writer
ST. PAUL (Jan. 19, 2010) – A group of Rondo residents and business owners have filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Metropolitan Council and the Federal Transit Administration concerning the impact that light rail will have on the community.
The lawsuit filed last month by Thomas DeVincke, an attorney with Bonner & Borhart, LLP, was introduced during a January 19 press conference at the former Lexington Branch Library building that is now home to the Central Corridor Resource Center, several of the plaintiffs gathered to discuss the suit. Some members said they are not opposed to light rail altogether but want the project to be a true collaboration that benefits the corridor as much as the riders coming through their neighborhoods.
Many were concerned that their homes and businesses along the central corridor would suffer as the light rail phased construction runs from 2011 and 2014.
Hundreds of homes and many businesses were destroyed with the construction of I94 when it was built through St. Paul in the 1950s. The dislocated community migrated to the Central Corridor area and the east side after more impact from urban renewal policies in the 1970s resulted in dislocation and further gentrification of a community.
Nathaniel Khaliq, president, Saint Paul Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), introduced plaintiffs and said the suit alleges that the light rail project is in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act; Administrative Procedures Act; and Declaratory Judgment Act and calls for declaratory and injunctive relief.
As a lifelong resident and apartment complex owner, he is also very concerned about parking and creating other barriers to the community. He said the lack of attention to the neighborhoods while at the same time much attention is given to the University of Minnesota and Minnesota Public Radio, means that it is also time for responsible seniors who remember, to take a stand and leave a legacy for their children and grandchildren.
“What we’re saying is if you want to do this, then go ahead and do it,” he said. “But, we want you to do it as a true partnership based on mutual trust and respect – where we get what we want out of the project and the city and the feds and state and everybody else gets what they want.
“Right now we are not even at the table getting crumbs,” he added. “This is totally unacceptable. It is immoral and it is unjust and we as a community will not stand for it.”
Veronica Burt, public policy advocate, Cultural Community Organizer, Just Equity and the Central Corridor Equity Coalition, explained how the historic Rondo neighborhood once existed in the area between Rice Street and Lexington Boulevard between University Avenue and Selby Avenue.
Burt said that this generation has the tools and wherewithal that the community of 50 years ago did not to fight that battle. She said it is their responsibility to use the tools made available by the Civil Rights movement and legislation and use them for social justice.
Burt said that members this lawsuit filed in federal court, challenged the legality of the planning of the Central Corridor Light Rail project. It alleges that government planning has neglected to adequately consider both the impacts of light rail on area businesses and residents. The lawsuit also alleges that the responsible agencies have failed to adequately consider mitigating the impacts of the project.
By granting the record of decision to the Central Corridor Light Rail project, Burt said that the Federal Transit Administration has approved this final environmental impact statement, and that fails to fully account for the project’s direct, indirect, and certainly in the case of our history, its cumulative impacts.
“Members of the Rondo community have long understood the negative consequences of major infrastructural projects and as such have been forced to take legal measures to ensure this time the protection of the community,” she added.
“As planned the light rail project will result in business interruption, commercial and residential parking loss, displacement, gentrification, increased rents and property taxes as well as the further isolation of this community sandwiched in between two government sponsored projects, I94 and the light rail,” she said.
Burt said the light rail would work if it helped to usher in an era of cultural revival for Rondo, on that allows for the restoration, preservation, enhancement and healing of the community.
“We value revitalization without displacement, of lifting people out of poverty and not out of the neighborhood,” she added.
Some of the plaintiffs presented included the Rev. Charles Gill, Jr., Senior Pastor of Pilgrim Baptist Church in St. Paul. He said his church doesn’t even appear on the Central Corridor map, a parish about to construct its third building on the site since 1886.
Rev. Gill said he is concerned for his aging congregation and says they are worried about being priced out of their homes and resulting decline in membership.
Nieeta Presley, executive director, Aurora/St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation, said she was raised on Rondo Avenue, and that her family’s homes and businesses were displaced.
Presley said the light rail issues have not been mitigated adequately and that the suit is to ensure that neighborhoods benefit from light rail and are protected from its potential negative impact.
Other plaintiffs included the owners of Shear Pleasure and Arnellia’s Place, two University Avenue businesses that are concerned about diminished parking and the resulting loss of customers from out of the area.
Area homeowners acting as plaintiffs include former Rondo residents, Rena Moran, Carolyn Brown, Deborah Montgomery, Michael Wright, Leetta Douglas, and Tranise Belame. They argued that light rail would result in the loss of street parking, increase their property taxes.
Metro Council Chair Peter Bell stated that their attorneys had a review of the suit had not been conducted and so could not comment. He would only say that the suit against the Council and the Central Corridor LRT project was disappointing.
“I am firmly convinced that the project will help spur the revitalization already occurring in the corridor and provide improved access to employment, educational and economic opportunities for its residents,” Bell stated.
“With the FTA’s change in policy concerning the CEI, I believe it is more likely than ever that we will be able to add two or three of the so-called ‘infill stations’ to the project,” he added. “However, our budget never will be large enough to ensure against all of the other adverse impacts feared or imagined by these groups.”
Since that statement, according to Steve Dornfeld, Public Affairs Director, Metropolitan Council, the FTA and local funding partners agreed to fund the three infill stations – following a Jan. 25 visit from U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff and Congressman James Oberstar.
“The community groups that filed the lawsuit have made a number of other expensive demands that could not be funded within the project budget,” Dornfeld stated. “It is possible that other funding sources will be identified to help assist businesses during construction.”
Va-Megn Thoj (Va-Meng Thao), executive director, Asian Economic Development Association (aeda-mn.org), together with Oakland–based National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development, and Senior Policy Analyst Gen Fujioka, filed a Title VI Environmental Justice complaint of concerned Asian businesses and organization of St. Paul, with the Federal Transit Administration, Office of Civil Rights in Washington, D.C. and its Chicago regional office on October 16, 2009.
The complaint included a CAPACD study of the FEIS for the Central Corridor Light Rail project in St. Paul, Minnesota. It documents “Material Omissions and Deficiencies of the Twin Cities Light Rail Project Environmental Justice Analysis,” regarding the project.
Thoj said AEDA did not have the resources to consider the lawsuit option, and said that although the Asian community does not have the history of Rondo in the neighborhood, that everyone would benefit from their work.
“I think the Preserve Rondo Committee has very legitimate concerns about the impact of the project on the community, and rightly so because of the history of I94 and the impact that it has had on the African American community,” said Thoj. “The Asian community came after that and we don’t have a history, but this project will have the same impact… it is not going to have a different impact on the African American community than it will on the Asian American community.”
Thoj noted that the Rondo group filed their suit on the deadline. He said they share a goal not to stop light rail but to do all that it can to ensure the small business community and residents of the corridor area benefit and do not suffer both during construction and operation.
Thoj said the FTA called to say the complaint had a lot to do with the recent addition of the three LRT stations at Lexington, Hamline and Dale, which had been excluded from the Metro Council’s Cost Effectiveness Index to remain competitive on the federal transportation project list. He said project funding is determined by ridership and travel time formulas and that the three stations were only possible with the CEI was changed by the federal government.
AEDA supports the three stations as necessary for community and business access to mass transportation.
The complaint also concerned the impact of the project on small businesses during the construction and after during operation. It states that small minority owned businesses would be adversely impacted because of the construction.
In addition to calling for impact mitigation to assist businesses to survive during construction and operation, they are also working to on zoning and tax issues to keep big box chains from coming in and displacing the small businesses.
AEDA is also creating a March 11 workshop to provide information to help prepare businesses with knowledge of construction impacts and how to prepare.
The City of Saint Paul last month announced a University Avenue parking program to provide forgivable loans to business and property owners to improve their off-street parking lots.
St. Paul has initiated a Neighborhood Commercial Parking Pilot Program to help business and property owners prepare for the loss of parking with light rail on the University Avenue commercial corridor. The Met Council has identified 11 critical areas in a parking mitigation report. All University Avenue businesses will be eligible to apply for mitigation funds. Priority will be given to those identified as part of the eleven critical areas.