Shopping Centers vs. Transit Users

The Star Tribune recently ran a story about a Coon Rapids strip mall owner who is trying to evict a public transit bus stop from its property, saying this violates its property rights.

This private property versus transit controversy has surfaced several times before in this metro area and across the nation. It falls in a legal grey area that the legislature should address, because it amounts to discrimination based on mode of transportation.

When I was Metro Transit’s facilities planning manager, I found myself involved in several of these disputes. The most famous was transit access to the Mall of America, which played out in two parts.

  1. Before LRT, the mall became a magnet for gang members who would congregate in the transit station after the close of business. The problem was real, but the mall’s first impulse was to ask Metro Transit to pull its bus service, which Metro Transit refused to do. The mall then implemented its requirement that teenagers be chaperoned by adults at certain hours and that solved the problem.
  2. During the design of Hiawatha LRT, the mall ownership tried hard to keep the station off the property and across the street. Its representative stated, “LRT needs the mall more than the mall needs LRT”. That changed only when the feds intervened to move the station into the east parking ramp.

There were other big fights. The most vicious was between Metro Transit and the City of Brooklyn Center over transit access to Brookdale Mall. The city sided with the mall owner who invoked the property rights argument. Brookdale ultimately went out of business and the transit center was built across Bass Lake Road from it.

Rosedale fought the construction of a transit center on its property. It got built only because the City of Roseville required it. However, Metro Transit’s lease has a finite term and it will be interesting to see if the mall owners try not to renew it. They succeeded in evicting the park-ride lot from their property.

Maplewood Mall evicted its bus stop. Metro Transit was able to buy a failed movie theater just off the mall property and has built a transit center and park-ride lot there, but it’s less convenient to the mall entrance than the old bus stop.

Southdale is owned by Simon, which is notorious for evicting transit. The recently constructed transit center only happened because the City of Edina made it a condition for helping Southdale financially.

Types of transit facilities
Transit facilities at malls can vary significantly in size and impact to the mall property. The one in Coon Rapids is a simple bus stop in an existing fire lane. This particular stop is served by small buses, but if full sized buses are used, the access lanes need to be 9-ton capacity or the buses will break up the pavement.

Metro Transit has a couple of small park-rides on mall property, but prefers to build larger ones on its own land, so park-rides really aren’t an issue.

The big source of conflict is the construction of transit centers at regional malls. Suburban transit needs two things to have a chance of succeeding–convenient access to the largest traffic generators, combined with timed-transfer connections between multiple routes. Regional malls are the biggest suburban traffic generators. Convenient access means not having to walk farther to reach the mall than the average auto driver.

Timed transfers require that all the buses converge and transfer passengers at once. That’s not possible unless transit centers with multiple bus bays are built. Depending on the number of bus routes, transit centers can consume an acre or two of parking on what is private property. The malls argue that this constitutes a “taking” of private property without compensation.

That argument is only valid if the government requirements to provide handicapped parking spaces, a certain number of parking spaces for the retail square footage, and fire lanes also constitute a taking, which they don’t. All are required for the public to access the mall. Why should transit be singled out for prohibition?

The cities hold the cards
At present, municipal governments offer the only legal barrier to these evictions and that barrier is not guaranteed, given the whims of local politics.

Transit land ownership is one solution. That’s what happened at Maplewood Mall, where Metro Transit bought the adjacent movie theater. Metro Transit has the power of eminent domain, but has used it sparingly and seldom does so if the municipality in question disagrees. Never have they condemned mall property for a transit center.

Is it discrimination?
I’m unaware that anyone has successfully alleged discrimination against transit users, but that’s what it is. Fixed route buses carry many disabled passengers, so it could be argued that evicting buses violates the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The real solution, I believe, is to pass a state law that puts transit service into private property on an equal footing with auto transportation. It would state that businesses that hold themselves open to serve the public must serve all of the public, regardless how they arrive at the door.

Aaron Isaacs

About Aaron Isaacs

Aaron retired in 2006 after 33 years as a planner and manager for Metro Transit, where he worked in route and schedule planning, operations, maintenance, transit facilities, light rail and traffic advantages for buses. He's an historian of transit, as a 40+ year volunteer with the Minnesota Streetcar Museum. He's co-author of Twin Cities by Trolley, The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and author of Twin Ports by Trolley on Duluth-Superior.