The fact that only 9 percent of eligible voters turned out for Minnesota’s primaries last week doesn’t speak well for our involvement in civic affairs.
Maybe more people would vote if we called elections “balloting parties” and served food and beverages to everybody who shows up. Call the idea democro-tainment or maybe gastro-democracy.
You may laugh, but the practice worked really well for the Central Corridor Friendly Streets Initiative, a coalition of two neighborhood groups that aimed to redesign Charles Avenue in St. Paul. In case you don’t know it, Charles, which spans the Hamline-Midway and Frogtown neighborhoods, runs two blocks north of and parallel to University Avenue, where the new light rail line is under construction.
The parties came as a response to St. Paul’s “Bike Walk Central Corridor Action Plan,” issued in 2010. It called for Charles to become a bicycle boulevard from Aldine to Park Street once the light rail is complete. Planners wanted to give bikers an alternative to University Avenue, where cycling has always been hazardous –and possibly more so since the LRT is in place.
Just what is a bicycle boulevard? Instead of restricting bikers to lanes on the side of the road, the bike boulevard allows them to use the middle of the street, sharing space with cars. (So no honking, when you’re stuck behind a cyclist going 10 miles an hour.) Signage and pavement markings alert drivers to the presence of bikers.
To limit through traffic on a bike boulevard, in this case, engineers use so-called traffic calming measures. Chief among them is the diverter, an island that prevents drivers from making particular turns at major intersections to discourage cars from cutting through to avoid congestion on University. Breaks in the middle of the diverter allow pedestrians and bikes to pass through. Other traffic calming measures: speed bumps and roundabouts to slow drivers down.
A similar project slated for Jefferson Avenue in St. Paul had already encountered bitter neighborhood opposition. The sticking point was the diverter, which residents claimed sent frustrated drivers speeding down alleys and side streets, creating a safety hazard.
To fend off opposition on Charles Avenue, especially the knee-jerk variety, the Hamline-Midway Coalition, a community-based nonprofit, formed an alliance with the Frogtown Neighborhood Association to reach out to residents to learn what they wanted Charles Avenue to look like. The federal money used to create the boulevard would also go to spiff up the neighborhood with street furniture like signs, benches and other whatnot that could make the area a more habitable. No one interested in neighborhood improvement wanted to leave money on the table.
Charles Avenue, I discovered in a walk with Michael Jon Olson, executive director for the Hamline-Midway Coalition, and Anthony Schmitz, a volunteer with the Frogtown Neighborhood Association and former editor of City Pages, is a pleasant tree-canopied street lined with modest but mostly well-manicured single-family homes.
Going along into Frogtown, the houses look a bit the worse for wear, and there are fewer trees. Traffic on Charles didn’t seem overwhelming, but crossing the major arteries like Snelling, Dale and Lexington, was frightening, even in a car. “Those streets have become walls,” says Olson. Pedestrians don’t have enough time to cross them, and they often wind up stranded in the middle of the road in a live game of Frogger.
Initial meetings with residents revealed, however, that Charles Avenue wasn’t sold on the bike boulevard any more than Jefferson Avenue. Changes to the street, people suspected, were designed simply to speed bike commuters from elsewhere through the neighborhood. They were more interested in changes to the street that would make it better to live on than move through. So the working group assembled from the two neighborhood associations set three goals for themselves: to inform residents about tools that could make the street “friendlier,” to find out what they wanted their street to be like and to promote the changes needed.
The next step, as you can imagine, would have been a series of meetings at some drab community center where maybe nine people turn out to listen to a city planner drone about traffic diversion.
But that’s not what happened. Steve Mitrione, a member of the working group and a physician at Allina Hospitals and Clinics, came up with the idea of throwing block parties to introduce people to a batch of ideas and to get their feedback.
So throughout 2011, the coalition threw five parties at different spots along Charles. A “gallery” displayed pictures of roundabouts, diverters and bicycle and pedestrian signals as well as street beautification ideas, like murals, painted pavement, “playful” tiled walls as so on. While they knocked back food from neighborhood restaurants (Flamingo, Mai Village, Saigon Restaurant among others), residents posted stickers with their opinions of gallery ideas. They also filled out a survey about what they wanted and participated with artists in so-called place-making activities, for example, designing a neighborhood flag or places to sit. About 700 people attended.
The parties generated a great deal of information. Residents’ concerns centered on motorists driving too fast, and many worried that traffic from University Avenue, squished by the new train line, would sluice off onto Charles, which they felt was already busy enough. Danger for children was also high on their anxiety list.
“St. Paul is returning to neighborhood schools and [using] less bussing, so residents want safer routes for their kids,” says Olson. Other worries that came up: crime, violence, foreclosures and, in the case of Frogtown, the flagging reputation of the community.
So what did they like? Making the street one-way for cars but two-way for bikes; installing permeable pavement (which promotes absorption of water and snow); and providing bike-friendly speed bumps, traffic islands, road painting to indicate that the street was a bicycle boulevard and decoration of intersections.
Some people came up with interesting branding ideas. “I’d like to see different frog designs on every street corner,” wrote one Frogtown resident. “We could make them all colors to represent our great neighborhood.”
Diverters did not receive much enthusiasm, but in meetings held this year, residents backed “pedestrian refuges” — raised islands where walkers can stand while waiting for traffic to abate — but basically just another name for those D-things.
Some ideas — street sports, tiled walls and decorated fences — drew opposition, too. Some residents loathed the idea of traffic diverters, and others thought that the one-way-two way street and islands would be problematic.
Transit for Livable Communities, which administers federal grants for bike boulevards (among other things), had the coalition work with a design group to formulate a plan. Right now it calls for medians on major arteries that will allow all traffic to pass through but will limit left turns into Charles, better signage and marking.
“We don’t know if we’ll have enough money for traffic circles,” says Olson.
Doing without them would be a shame. The one already on Charles Avenue, which is covered with flowers, would, with the installation of a few benches, become a welcome oasis for walkers.
Already, some residents have made their own street modifications. At one corner house, the owner had placed more than a half dozen vari-colored Adirondack chairs in the front yard where neighbors could sit and chat.
Plan gets public airing
St. Paul’s planning commission will discuss the project today, and on Sept. 5, the City Council will hear from the public.
And there are objections to be heard. Richard Purcell, owner of the nearly century-old Holcomb-Henry-Boom-Purcell Funeral Home on Snelling and Charles, says that he’s not at all opposed to turning the street into a bike boulevard. But he worries that restricting left turns from Snelling into Charles will keep those who attend services and visitations from easy access to his parking lot.
“We serve people who are in crisis; a lot of them are elderly, and their sense of navigation is not as quick,” he says.
Purcell worries that they’ll have trouble figuring out how to get where they’re going. He’s asked the city to consider jogging the boulevard up a block or two to cross Snelling at a street where there already is a median and lights. “It wouldn’t make a big difference to the overall plan,” he says.
It would be great if the plan could accommodate his needs because life runs much more smoothly when neighbors get along.
Maybe they need another party to iron out the last wrinkles.