By John Abraham Watne
The safety of pedestrians has been a major concern in the West Calhoun neighborhood for many years. This was only heightened by a terrible accident that occurred in the area one year ago this month, when a young woman was struck and killed at the intersection of Lake Street and Market Plaza. Ironically your reporter was out in the neighborhood on that very night with the West Calhoun Neighborhood Council and several engineers with the City of Minneapolis and the 13th Ward Council Member Linea Palmisano (see here for my dispatch from that time). The purpose of this neighborhood walk was to look at various safety improvements needed in the area, and unfortunately those present received an intense lesson in the importance of improving matters here.
A memorial service was held a few days after the incident. Elected officials representing the area, including CM Palmisano, then-Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman, then-candidate for Park Board Meg Forney, State Rep. Frank Hornstein and State Sen. Scott Dibble all were in attendance. Friends of Ms. Barton spoke about what she meant to them, and several officials gave speeches outlining the safety needs in this area. The group then conducted a ceremonious walk across Excelsior Boulevard and Lake Street to the spot where the young woman was struck by a moving truck, and lit candles for a memorial on the sidewalk (see the accompanying slide show for some pictures, including those taken by my MinnyApple colleague Aaron Shaffer).
While this was truly a tragic event and galvanized the community, this reporter felt it was necessary to drill down into this topic a year later and to see what has actually changed for the better. Elected officials often make grandiose statements in front of broad swaths of people, but sometimes promises are forgotten and things remain the same. I wanted to find out exactly what has occurred here in the year since this tragic accident.
To start with I spoke with Council Member Palmisano, who was with our neighborhood group on this fateful night. I asked Ms. Palmisano what all she thought had changed in this area since the accident. The first thing she brought up was improved lighting in the neighborhood, “durable markings” for the crosswalk areas, improved timing of stoplights, and lengthened pedestrian intervals at the intersections. (An aside here: leading up to this story, I noticed the “durable markings” at Excelsior Blvd, which were supposed to last a decade, only made it about six months into the year. When I brought this up with Palmisano’s office she made sure that the city’s Public Works department knew about it. Crews came out to repaint these lines about a week later.)
Palmisano also mentioned a major upcoming project: a Multi-Modal Traffic Study (MMTS) that the she described as a “major asset” from the recent Southwest Light Rail negotiations among the various municipalities on the line. She said that the scope of this study is decided but the city has yet to put out a Request For Proposals to conduct it. The study will look at all types of transit in this area and is scheduled to begin Spring 2015. The study area will stretch from France Ave to Knox Ave, and from Cedar Lake Ave down to Ivy Ln in the south (see map).
While this study will be important in the context of safety improvements and the incoming West Lake light rail station, there are still many enhancements that have occurred here brought about by the Council Member’s coordination with other city departments. Palmisano mentioned a survey taken last year at a safety meeting she hosted with the WCNC (see here for more) in which residents were to pick their top concerns. Some of the requests included moving the “stop bars” where cars have to wait before a crosswalk back further (a completed task), new thermoplastic markings on the crosswalks (which, while effective, don’t seem to last as long as advertised in our state’s lovely winters), and countdown timers added to all stop lights (another completed task). Palmisano also stated that she’s heard requests from residents to add more “No Turn on Red” signs like those at Lake St/Market Plaza. She said the city’s traffic departments told her that when these signs are removed, crashes actually decrease in the area. Therefore she said she’s reluctant to add more of these signs. However, she did say she is pushing for more pedestrian access signs in the Calhoun Village area.
Regarding the lines on the streets, Palmisano said they are scheduled to be re-painted this year. She said the city is also looking at changing the lanes on Market Plaza at Calhoun Village to make it easier to drive out of this intersection. She also added that the pedestrian lead time at this intersection and the one at Excelsior have been lengthened. When residents wish to cross the very same street where the accident happened, they are given a few seconds of pure pedestrian walk time before traffic is allowed to begin moving. Palmisano said her office worked to add more lighting to Abbott Ave South, another trouble area the original safety walk viewed last year.
I next asked Palmisano what she thinks needs to be done in this area. A major concern of hers was widening the sidewalks on Excelsior Blvd, which often times are so narrow as to be difficult to use. She stressed again the many changes that should come into effect with the West Lake station, but also that she would work on these regardless of what happens with that quite troubled project. Palmisano also spoke of negotiations the city is working on with the owners of Calhoun Village to create some type of pedestrian access point under the Lake Street bridge behind this shopping center. This could include some type of sidewalk that would stretch over to the Midtown Greenway, which runs behind the center.
I reached out to another local government official in charge of this area, Hennepin County Commissioner Marion Greene. To make matters more complicated, Lake Street is technically a country road and therefore it has jurisdiction here, too. Unfortunately after multiple attempts to reach out to Commissioner Greene I was unable to get a comment on these issues. I also tried to contact Senator Dibble’s office, but received no response as he’s busy with the current state legislative session.
I also wanted to get the perspective of residents in the neighborhood, so I reached out to Jeff Peltola, founder of Public Works for Public Good, a non-profit that “strives to improve our physical infrastructure, community by community, project by project (in the early problem definition and conceptual phase).” The founding stemmed from five student projects he mentored, starting in early 2011, on transportation problems in the area around Lake Street and Excelsior Blvd. The first arose from comments community members submitted to Hennepin County related to SWLRT, which made them realize they didn’t want to wait to start the process of making improvements (see here for a summary of his group’s work on Lake St/Market Plaza).
He discussed some missed opportunities from the various studies conducted by his group, mentioning one slide from a presentation in particular. This was a photograph of the Lake Street/Market Plaza intersection and called for basic improvements such as pedestrian countdown timers, and improved pedestrian accessibility (clearer crosswalk lines, removal of a post in the median, etc). He also expressed his some disappointment that more wasn’t done sooner to follow up on the short-term recommendations.
I asked Mr. Peltola about what he’s noticed around the area since last year. He said that there certainly was some “awareness raised” in the year since the accident, and he stated he was very glad to see the traffic study come out of the SWLRT negotiations. He mentioned the improved lighting, leading pedestrian signals as some “small improvements” and stated that he is “cautiously optimistic” about the study. I then asked what he thinks still needs to be done here. He stressed the importance of “north/south connectivity” within the community, whether on foot, on a bike, or in a vehicle. He also brought up the problem areas of the Excelsior/Lake “Y” intersection and the intersection of Dean Parkway and Lake Street. He said it was important to look at various options, including “grade separation” for those intersections. He stated that PWPG is considering organizing a design competition to collect and show ideas. Another spot the group is looking at is a redesign of where 32nd Street meets Excelsior Blvd (an area near where your reporter lives and is constantly traveled by vehicles going too fast), possibly even creating some sort of roundabout here.
Jeff shared with me a map his organization created last year outlining some of the major “capital improvements” that are needed here, including “grade separation” of the before-mentioned Y-intersection, a “new north-south connector street under Lake St bridge,” a “pedestrian underpass under Lake St,” and “additional pedestrian connectors” in the neighborhood.
Jeff also expressed some frustration at the lack of responsiveness by local government officials. He said he’s been giving input since the 2012 DEIS (Draft Environmental Impact Statement) on the Southwest Light Rail project and feels that the notion that these station areas should be considered “places” has been lost in the shuffle of freight rail co-location and other issues surrounding the project. He stressed the need for “community connection” around the station, and said he was worried by some statements by the Met Council’s project office concerning pedestrian access over the freight and light rail tracks. He also said that as the major governmental institution responsible for many of these issues, Hennepin County needs to “take the lead,” listen to the community’s input about what is right for the long term and “go to bat for it.”
Jeff also said he was glad to hear from Hennepin County Commissioner Marion Greene that she would carry forward his request that the design and public engagement for both the Beltline and West Lake stations be done together.
While it’s true that many safety measures have been implemented in this neighborhood, there is much that remains to be done. The inclusion of the Southwest Light Rail station should precipitate some major changes in this area, but it’s also up to residents here to keep up the pressure on governmental officials to ensure that this area, which sees thousands of vehicles traveling through each day, remains a safe and walkable area. We don’t want to ever see another tragedy like the accident last February.
John Abraham-Watne is a published author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. He is the author of two novels published by North Star Press. John conducts freelance journalism on local government issues for the news/entertainment website MinnyApple. His work has also appeared in the Southwest Journal and the Hill & Lake Press.