I oppose the State Boulevard widening project; I thought it would be best to get that out front. However, let me say I have supported City projects on other occasions. I was an enthusiastic supporter of the Harrison Square project. I currently support the Around the Square Plan – at least as released in its preliminary plans that have been viewable by the public.
As President of the West Central Neighborhood Association, I supported the demolition of two historical homes located on West Washington Boulevard – a main thoroughfare heading west out of Fort Wayne – with plans to construct two new homes on the empty lots left by the razed homes. The two homes had been abandoned for years and were virtually beyond salvation. Two other companion homes to the west were to be salvaged and renovated. In West Central, we deem demolition as a last resort, but the homes were demolished so the City could accomplish a much-needed renovation of 50% of a deteriorated block in West Central.
But projects must make sense, and they must be necessary, and they must be based on public concerns and input – not arrogantly garnered after the fact but gathered in the initial planning stages of the process. The State Boulevard project fails on all counts. In order to understand what is happening to our neighborhoods through the City’s plan to slice and dice them into quadrants and thruways, a little background and history is required.
METROPOLITAN PLANNING ORGANIZATIONS (MPOs)
Regional and area transportation plans are created by entities called “Metropolitan Planning Organizations” (MPOs). These MPOs are federally mandated and federally funded under the 1962 Federal Aid Highway Act. Statewide and metropolitan transportation planning processes are governed by Federal law, and applicable state and local laws are required if Federal highway or transit funds are used for transportation investments. While this all sounds neat and tidy, the major flaw in this entire scenario is that Metropolitan Planning Organizations operate virtually free of public scrutiny and input.
In our local area, the Northeast Indiana Regional Coordinating Council – NIRCC for short – is the entity that decides for the most part just what roads, highways, intersections, and other infrastructure repairs go where, when, and how. And they get to decide how a road is labeled, which makes a tremendous impact on what happens to the road. Is it an arterial – major or minor? Is it a boulevard? Is it a local road? All left up to the regional authority with no input from the neighborhoods through which these streets run. The designation impacts what can happen to an urban street such as State Boulevard.
Most citizens have no idea of the power and influence of NIRCC. Plans are made 20-30 years in advance with cursory and obligatory public open houses after the preliminary plans have been drafted. Even then the plans are mere lists of projects with codes that indicate the stage and funding source – no detailed explanations of impacts on neighborhoods or areas. Simply, “here it is whether you like it or not.” The newest draft plans can be found at NIRCC under current news.
Despite the fact that 20-30 years is at least a generation and paradigms and philosophies change, NIRCC and the City still advance plans made decades earlier and are pretty much unwilling to take another look based on newer paradigms and philosophies.
REQUEST FOR PROPOSAL – 2007
In 2007, a Request for Proposal (RFP) was published by the City. The RFP was for a five-lane expressway through the Brookview Neighborhood. The plans and design for the five-lanes were created probably in the early years of the Richards administration. The RFP was done before public input was sought. The City and its engineers had already planned the concept, and, they determined they were not going to change it.
In February 2009, City Council was presented with the proposal to hire a firm to develop the plans. A contract for approximately $950,000 was approved for engineering services only – nothing further. Thus, as of today, the only item that has been approved is the engineering contact for a design. If anyone tries to tell the public different, then they are misrepresenting the actions of that February 2009 council vote. No project has been approved even though the City personnel continue to speak in terms of a “done deal.”
STATE BOULEVARD AND BROOKVIEW NEIGHBORHOOD
Brookview is a historical neighborhood, designed by nationally known architect Arthur Shurcliff. State Boulevard – the boulevard that is the focus of the project – was also designed by a nationally renowned landscape architect and planner, George Kessler. State Boulevard runs east and west and winds through Brookview just past the intersection with Cass Street. Once through the historic neighborhood, State Boulevard crosses the St. Joe River near North Side High School and continues past several additional historic areas. The Brookview-Irvington neighborhoods were listed in 2011 on the National Register of Historic Places.
Obtaining this recognition is accomplished through a lengthy submission which requires much work and dedication in its preparation; the process is time-consuming, but, if successful, bestows an honor on the neighborhood and provides a certain degree of protection from the advances of modern engineering philosophy that deems wrecking balls and bulldozers as tools to be used – often indiscriminately.
CITY PLANS WILL DESTROY BROOKVIEW ENVIRONMENT
The Brookview neighborhood is threatened by various separate proposed roadway and flood control projects. The existing State Boulevard bridge is to be replaced. As the road narrows and curves as it runs through Brookview, traffic engineers plan to replace and elevate the bridge and, at the same time, widen and straighten State Boulevard to five lanes – a total of a 54-foot width.
This will alter the character of the neighborhood significantly and may lead to the destruction of many houses that date to the district’s historic period (circa 1906 to1965). Several houses have already been removed as a flood control measure. A final project is the improvement of the Clinton Street Bridge which will cause the height of State Boulevard to be elevated in order to connect with Clinton properly.
The City has given little thought to alternative plans – in fact, it has given no thought; it doesn’t think it needs to. NIRCC and City personnel have basically said this is it – tough luck. The City argues with vitriol against opponents of the project that federal funding will be lost if this massive five-lane project cannot be completed. City engineers wring their hands and opine that the only solution is the five-lane expressway through the historical Brookview-Irvington neighborhoods.
Yet, the engineers cannot point to any specific source where criteria can be found to support their position that a change in plans will lead to loss of funding. The explanations provided usually are based on the assumption that “because we say it is, it is.” Or, “it is complicated.” That, my dear public, is code for “you wouldn’t understand it even if we explained it to you because you just aren’t educated sufficiently to understand these issues.” I beg to differ.
The City held three open houses several months ago for what it said was the purpose of public input. Would it surprise anyone to know that the public input was a farce? One city personnel said that the five lanes were not going to change – that was it – basically too bad. What the public input amounted to was where to place landscaping. Yet, what hasn’t been disclosed by the City is that the comment sheets personnel handed out indicated that at least 50% of the those responding wanted the project scaled back.
Our opposition group also handed out surveys at the open houses, and we found the same position by those who had responded with comments to the City. Despite the fact that at least 50% of the public’s comments asked that the project be scaled back, the City dismissed the results with the typical ”Father Knows Best” stance, intent on ignoring the results. Public input is merely illusory.
Folks, the result will be a five-lane expressway carrying increased truck and vehicular traffic. And, if anyone thinks a five-lane expressway will not become a truck route, hey, I have the proverbial ocean front property to sell you located in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
West Central – my neighborhood – is a perfect example. Before the extension of West Jefferson and West Washington toward the southwest, the two boulevards terminated at Swinney Park. They now carry 35,000 vehicles a day.
At any hour through the daytime and early evening, heavy traffic enters from the west speeding around the curve at the Swinney Tennis Courts. Thousands of vehicles per day. And, in the evening, thousands of vehicles leave by West Washington. Placing a five-lane expressway in the Brookview neighborhood will do exactly the same thing. The goal for the City is to run a major thoroughfare through the heart of historical neighborhoods including those farther east of the Brookview-Irvington neighborhoods.
The State Boulevard project is not necessary in its current form. The public input suggests that at least 50% of those who responded with comments want the project scaled back. So, one might ask – exactly what message is the City and its engineers not getting? Or are they getting it but believe they have no obligation to listen to the public – the taxpayers – the citizens of this community?