Government

Cedar Rapids $180 million streets fix-up collides with "complete-streets" policy

Neighborhood next to Jefferson High School is a first battleground

Signs reading
Signs reading “Stop Sidewalks/Walks: Save Our Trees” have been placed in many yards in the neighborhood along 20th St. SW and Chandler St. SW in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, July 29, 2015. Many in the neighborhood are unhappy with a city plan to add sidewalks on both sides of Chandler Drive and 20th St, SW near Jefferson High School, citing large elevation change and many mature trees in the proposed sidewalk’s route. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — No small effort has gone into the city’s prioritization of a long, long list of substandard streets on which to invest a piece of the $180 million in revenue from the local-option sales tax over 10 years in the city’s Paving for Progress program.

What homeowner hasn’t salivated about getting his or her street on the list — and the higher up the list and the sooner the work the better?

But be careful what you wish for, says a freshly organized group of neighbors in the middle-class neighborhood of 1950s-era homes that features towering trees on Chandler Street SW and 20th Street SW next to Jefferson High School.

These days it’s hard to see the trees there for the yard signs — “Stop Sidewalks/Walls Save Our Trees.”

Janelle Evans, 1218 20th St. SW, who bought her home seven years ago after being driven out of her previous one by the 2008 flood, said she moved to this house most of all because of the oak in the front yard.

“I’ve seen pictures in Berkeley (Calif.) — my son went to college there — where people were naked and chained themselves to their trees,” Evans said. “I don’t think I’ll go that far.”

The Chandler Street SW neighborhood is a pioneering story in that it is the first residential neighborhood in which the city’s two-year-old Paving for Progress program is colliding with the city’s still-new, health-conscious “complete-streets” policy.

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The policy calls for the city to try to make streets it is reconstructing friendly and encouraging to walkers, bicyclists and the disabled, and not just to vehicles.

That is particularly true for street reconstruction projects — rather than simpler asphalt resurfacing projects that will be more common in many neighborhoods — such as the Chandler Street SW area one, where the residential streets will be taken out and rebuilt.

In the Chandler Street SW case, the reconstruction, in large part, is being driven by the city Utilities Division’s need to replace the water main under the streets at the same time.

Jen Winter, the city’s new public works director, said such an intensive reconstruction project requires the city to look to its complete street policy to see if it is appropriate to add sidewalks if they are not in place and bike lanes in some instances. The idea is to ensure that the street connects to other sidewalks, bikeways and trails so pedestrians, for example, can safely walk without dodging cars in the street or walking on the front lawns of homes.

According to the city’s data, 34 percent of the city’s street system does not have sidewalks.

Doug Wilson, the city’s capital improvement project manager, said a map of the city shows a big “doughnut hole,” in which sidewalks are in place in older, core neighborhoods and in newer neighborhoods — but are missing in neighborhoods built in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, such as the Chandler Street SW neighborhood.

Terry Franc, 1241 20th St. SW, said he remembered how retired city engineering technician Ed Kral would attend nearly every City Council meeting back in the 1990s and early 2000s to cajole the council to add to its sidewalk system. He didn’t have much success, Franc said.

“But now they’re doing it, and we can’t do anything about it,” he said.

Winter, Wilson and others from the city as well as the city’s consulting engineers met face to face with the Chandler Street SW neighbors in recent weeks at an informational meeting called by the city at Jefferson High School. She and the neighbors agreed that there was plenty of neighborhood blowback.

Fighting words

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“So we’ve talked to the people on Chandler about the city’s complete street policy, and how it would be applied to their street,” Winter said. “And we’ve heard many concerns — the loss of trees, the change of the landscape of their yards, the need for retaining walls.”

There are some areas that are going to have constraints that make it very difficult for us to fully implement the complete streets policy,” she continued. “And we are aware of that. But we also want to, when we go out to these neighborhoods, tell them there is a change and there is a policy. And we do want to make these corridors and roadways accessible for all users.”

Those are fighting words in the neighborhood.

Lori Hennings, 2006 Chandler St. SW, said the city’s complete-streets policy coupled with the city’s Blue Zones health initiative were never intended to be “one size fits all.”

“The current City Council seems to be focused on miles of sidewalk installed,” Hennings said.

City Council member Scott Olson, whose council District 4 includes the Chandler Street SW area, said the city does want to see how its complete streets policy can be incorporated into street reconstruction projects. He said that, for example, the city now is rebuilding nearby 18th Street SW and adding sidewalks to make it easier for students and others to get to Jefferson High School.

He said the city now needs to see if it makes sense to connect the Chandler Street SW area to that sidewalk system. Can it be done and keep trees? Does there need to be sidewalks on both sides of streets, he asked.

“Yes, there is wiggle room,” Olson said. “That’s why we’re doing the engineering study.”

Neighbors and the city’s Winter and Wilson agree that the Chandler Street SW neighborhood is hilly in parts. But Winter and Wilson said the city has plenty of hilly streets with sidewalks.

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Many of the beautiful trees on 20th Street SW are set back from the street, and Wilson said the streets are especially wide in the neighborhood in an era when the city favors narrower residential streets that help to slow neighborhood traffic down.

He said one option could be to narrow the streets to help make more room for sidewalks.

Wilson, who has been with city for six years, said he has seen instances where neighborhood outrage has prompted the City Council to set aside sidewalk projects. A sidewalk-to-school project near Erskine Elementary School, 600 36th St. SE, in 2010 was such a case, he said.

However, Wilson said the council has been less willing to turn its back on sidewalks as it has embraced the complete-streets idea and formally adopted a policy. By way of example, the council was willing to remove on-street parking along a portion of Boyson Road NE over neighborhood objections to make room for bike lanes.

“This is a different time and a different attitude about transportation,” Wilson said.

Time will tell in the Chandler Street SW area to see how much flexibility is built into the city’s complete-streets policy and how sturdy the City Council is in the face of neighborhood protest.

“Once you start saying we’re not going to do it here (in this neighborhood), where does that stop?” Wilson said.

Winter said the city may not be back in a neighborhood like the Chandler Street SW one for a long time after the current water and street project is complete in 2018.

“So we have to look at what is in the best interest of the community today and tomorrow,” she said.

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Last week, Peg McGuire, 1253 20th St. SW, attended the City Council meeting and gave members a handout with photographs of her street.

“Imagine these beautiful healthy trees, over three stories high, gone forever,” McGuire said. “Please don’t destroy our neighborhood just because you can.”

Bob and Jan Coleman, 1217 20th St. SW, were among neighbors who said using the street to walk in has never been a problem. They said they liked the city’s first idea of simply resurfacing the street with asphalt, rather than the complete-street plan.

“The street is one thing,” Jan Coleman said. “But you start stepping into our yards, which we’ve had to maintain and pay upkeep on. And now they are telling us they have 13 feet (of right of way along the street) and we’re going to do what we want.”

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