Minneapolis is the latest city to develop Portland-envy and, thanks to the Portland-imitating Seattle Streetcar, a little Seattle-desire as well. Minneapolis is now considering a starter-streetcar line, with maybe six more to follow. Minnpost.com writer Steve Berg recently visited the Northwest cities, rode and praised the streetcars, and was "reminded again how far behind downtown Minneapolis has fallen."
Berg's story is a good summary of the case for streetcars as development tools, particularly "to catalyze redevelopment on the edges" of a downtown. He cites these figures for downtown Portland, since its streetcar line opened in 2001 (and since expanded):In the years since then, 115 real-estate projects (PDF) – new construction and renovation – have popped up along the initial loop and its four extensions. Included are more than 10,000 new housing units and 5.4 million square feet of commercial space. Altogether, that represents a $3.5 billion investment – nearly all of it private – spurred by a $103 million capital outlay by the city. That's a return of at least $20 for every dollar invested. Not bad – and not a bad way to capture economic growth in a way that minimizes the impact on land, water and carbon emissions. Fifty-five percent of all development in central Portland has located within one block of the eight-mile streetcar loop since its route was first mapped in 1997. "Our estimate is that one-third of that development would have happened without the streetcar," said Charlie Hayes, vice president of the engineering firm HDR Inc., and a former Portland city commissioner who championed the streetcar revival.
Those studying the advantages of these streetcars in Minneapolis estimate that they attract 15-50 percent higher ridership than buses, cost half that of light rail, and carry two to three times the load of buses, some of which they eventually replace. Another claimed advantage is that they minimize the need for cars for people living in downtowns. All kinds of American cities are now streetcar-smitten.
As it happens, a friend and I took our first ride on Seattle's South Lake Union Streetcar one morning this week, walking out to the new Lake Union Park and riding the streetcar back. Most streetcars had fewer than five passengers, though ours had about 15. A young man played his drum for the whole trip, angered when someone tried to hush him. A nanny with a small child had a long debate with the ticket-checking guard as to whether her Metro pass would work, having already tried to get that clear by calling Metro earlier. Other families appeared to be tourists. The ride is slow but very smooth.
What concerned me more was the flip side of the Minneapolis story, hoping to use streetcars to stimulate in-city living. The buildings going up along the Seattle Streetcar are mostly new office buildings, for Amazon and for biotech and for Microsoft. Streetlife was extremely thin, except for a flurry around the struggling Whole Foods. What's springing up is sleek, expensive, faux-urbanism, rather like downtown Redmond. I can't imagine that the few high-character stores will last much longer, with most of them being replaced by snazzy services for the nearby workforce (cafes, gyms, flower shops) that you expect on suburban corporate campuses. The streetcar may be slow, but the transformation of a once-mixed neighborhood will be fast.