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Children’s treatment center pulls the plug on Golden Valley location

MinnPost photo by Sarah T. Williams
Far right: Traci Hackmann, president and CEO of LifeSpan

A day treatment center for schoolchildren with mental illness has withdrawn its application for a conditional use permit in Golden Valley, citing burdensome conditions and the “extreme views” of some neighbors who opposed the project.

In a letter to Golden Valley Mayor Shep Harris and City Council members, Traci Hackmann, owner of LifeSpan of Minnesota Inc., and developer and landlord Mike Whalen of Fundus Praedium LLC said they had been “taken aback” by the tone of a Feb. 5 council meeting, during which some residents and council members expressed concerns about threats to public safety.

Their business at the mixed-use site at 345 Pennsylvania Avenue would have renovated an older building, added 40 jobs and brought “a great service” to Golden Valley and the West Metro, Hackmann and Whalen said.

The focus on safety, they said, contradicted information from the city’s police chief and an agreement that had been secured to have a qualified health officer on site to manage any “emergency holds” (in which a child is transported and hospitalized for emergency care). The agreement to add a health officer would have reduced any extra burden of calls to the police department, and was just one of many conditions to which LifeSpan had agreed before approaching the City Council with the unanimous approval of the Planning Commission. Only to be turned down by a 3-2 vote (with the tie broken by the mayor) after a heated public hearing.

“The planning commission presented us with 16 conditions, all of which we were prepared to meet,” Hackmann and Whalen said in their letter, which was sent Tuesday. The number of conditions was unusually high in their experience, they said.

The council and mayor, alternately apologetic and accusatory, unanimously rescinded their “no” vote on Feb. 18, but that action “was not at all reassuring,” Hackmann and Whalen said. “None of the three people who voted for the original motion to deny approval indicated that they would even consider changing their vote in the future and went to great lengths to say that they were not committing to anything.” The burden would be on them to address the neighbors’ “unfounded fears and concerns,” they said.

Given the lengths to which they already had gone and would still have to go, it was time to “cut our losses,” they said.

It was a practical but painful decision, they said.

Saddened but determined

“We are saddened that due to the decisions by the majority of the city council and extreme views of some local residents, we no longer see this location as a financially viable option and will not be going forward with this project,” Hackmann and Whalen said in their letter. “Children with mental illnesses are loving and delightful; they live in your community, attend your schools, participate in your faith communities, and play in your parks, they simply have an illness that requires treatment.”

The two expressed their gratitude for the Planning Commission, the council members who voted yes, and “the numerous kind and generous” people of Golden Valley who reached out after media reports to express their support. They said another community “willing to accept and welcome this treatment program and its children” had expressed interest.

After the vote to rescind, Hackmann said in an interview that, even as she could see the plans unraveling, she was undeterred.

“I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m taking care of kids,” she said. “If you want me at my most obstinate, if people say, “Not in my back yard,’ I’m going to say, ‘Not on my watch.’ I have to do my job. I have to take care of the kids. And if it’s not a safe, comfortable environment, then I have to find that place. That’s my job.”

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Ian Westray on 02/27/2014 - 08:09 am.

    “Heated” City Hall meetings in Golden Valley? You don’t say.

    This story rang familiar bells for me.

    I live on Regent Avenue North. A few years ago, Regent’s pavement was rebuilt. As part of the planning process for its replacement, there was a public meeting at City Hall to discuss designs for adding a sidewalk.

    For a long time now, decades, the general principal has apparently been to add sidewalks on reasonably busy roads in Golden Valley, slowly building a system that will accommodate more foot traffic. A planning commission arrived at that approach long ago. Our street was basically a perfect candidate in my view. Funding for the change was inherent to the street project, so residents wouldn’t directly shoulder any of that financial burden. The meeting I attended was about design.

    “Heated” is one word for what I saw at that meeting. “Deranged” would be another. During that meeting, I heard these arguments that have stuck in my memory:

    * Sidewalks connecting Golden Valley to other areas of the city would bring crime in — the thinly-veiled suggestion being that North Minneapolis was the dreaded connection to be made.
    * A resident stood up and said that sidewalks would bring foot traffic dramatically closer to his living room window, allowing criminals to case the home more easily. (Apparently, criminals are strikingly lacking in initiative, and stop at the ends of sidewalks looking forlornly into neighborhoods without them. Foiled!)
    * A regular bicycle commuter explained the pure doctrine that nobody should ever, ever, ever ride a bike on a sidewalk — because it might become entangled with dog leashes. (As a parent who’d taught my kids to ride bikes in the neighborhood and been extremely nervous about car traffic at the time — we used a local church’s parking lot, or they wobbled across the lumpy grass of my back yard — I was amazed to be learning that 5-year-olds on a separate paved walkway would have been much more dangerous. The specific picture we were presented with was of a mom leading her dog and pushing a stroller being overtaken by a kid on a bike. Apparently it’s much better to have that woman, her child, her kid, and a passing out-of-control kid on a bicycle all in the street with passing cars.)
    * We were told that property values went down 30% in areas where sidewalks were added. Citation: The internet. They’d made a printout, and waved it.
    * A city hall employee described an incident in which someone in a wheelchair has some sort of incident in traffic because of an obstructed sidewalk. (The Courage Center, for recovering spinal cord patients, is near our neighborhood. We see people from it passing on Golden Valley Road nearby.) This provoked an audible group sneer from my gathered neighbors. Someone stood up and snapped that they’d gotten what they deserved for going out there.
    * A lone person stood up and observed that none of the awful things being said were true of the neighborhoods Uptown where he’d lived. The reaction was deeply uncivil, not to belabor a description of that.
    * An otherwise perfectly nice woman told us that she’d moved to Golden Valley specifically because there were no sidewalks here. (Who knew this was such a selling point for realtors?) She said there was “a gentleman’s agreement” to let people use yards for walking. (As I look out at the snow in our yards today, I can’t help but think of that gentlemanly agreement to stomp through chest-deep plow drifts on our way to school bus stops. Even during the meeting I vividly remembered seeing her son, on the adjoining Golden Valley Road, stumble while leading their small dog and riding a scooter. He fell, and the dog bolted. Happily there’s a sidewalk on that busy 35-MPH road, and I believe nobody was injured; if he’d fallen on the road’s shoulder in traffic like that, the outcome could have been awfully dangerous.)

    In short, I was aghast to be attending a City Hall meeting with neighbors, who’d always seemed like quite nice people, snarling vociferously and turning awfully ugly over the innocuous question of sidewalk design. We went through similar processes over the expansion of Highway 100, and apparently over the LifeSpan proposal.

    That isn’t who were are in Golden Valley. There’s a bad, bad culture going on here in which City Hall meetings apparently bring out the commenters from Newspaper Web sites. Those people make wildly disproportionate arguments, all of which are more about territoriality and a stolid resistance to any change whatsoever than they are about the specifics of the claims being made.

    I don’t understand it, and it makes me truly sad. We’re not this sort of place, really.

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