I’ve sat through a year’s worth of Duluth City Council meetings now, and in that time, there has been plenty of tedium and mundane small-town political talk that inspires little community interest. There are some nights, however, when the community turns out in force to weigh in on a certain issue, and when the gravity of the debate can overwhelm those involved. Monday night was one of those nights.
It was standing room only in the Council Chamber, and yours truly was wedged between a whole bunch of people wearing caution tape and an unsympathetic armrest at the end of the pew. At least 20 employees from the city’s Public Works and Utilities departments lined the edges of the room, dressed in their blue uniforms; their speaker, Phil Fournier, gave a very brief demand that the City honor its contract and discuss seniority issues. (This took the Council by surprise, and both Mr. Fournier and CAO Montgomery promised to share their sides of the story.) There was also a long Committee of the Whole meeting before the formal meeting, in which the Development Authority, supported by a host of developers, gave their initial pitch for a hotel and related redevelopment along the currently vacant Pier B by Bayfront Park.
The real drama on Monday, though, all had to do with the Park Point small area plan. This plan, tabled at the previous meeting, had been separated into four individual resolutions. The most contentious of their number moved the current S-curve—the point at which the main flow of traffic shifts off Lake Avenue and on to Minnesota Avenue—from 13th Street to 8th Street. The second was an alternative to the first, which left the S-curve as is but made changes to 8th Street and Minnesota Ave. between 8th and 13th Streets to accommodate more traffic. While there were a variety of reasons given for the proposed changes, the most prominent involved further development along Minnesota Ave., as a hotel is about to open there, and there is potential for further expansion. (Still, any official changes would not take place until “at least 2021,” according to Community Development Manager Keith Hamre.) The third was a relatively benign resolution on utilities infrastructure, and the fourth provided more detail on public waterfront accesses, designating three “tier one” beach accesses for heavy public use at Franklin Park, Lafayette Square, and the beachouse and eight negotiable “tier two” accesses along both sides of the Point designed with locals in mind. To further clarify the tier two accesses, Councilor Gardner added a pair of amendments, one which barred these accesses from being advertised, and one that called for more discussion on the location of the access points.
(Full disclosure before I go any further: I have a family member who lives between the Lift Bridge and the S-curve, though said family member is a renter and is unlikely to still be living in this location when any proposed plan would go into effect, and has not voiced a strong opinion on the plan.)
There were nineteen speakers on the various Park Point resolutions, and only one, Garner Moffat, the first speaker and a member of the Planning Commission, was in support of them. He said the proposals were a reasonable compromise, and also offered several alternatives for the Council to choose from. The other eighteen, while united in their opposition, made for a diverse cast; they ranged from the indignant (Mr. Mike Medlin) to the questioning (Mr. Burke Edgerton) to those concerned about safety (Ms. Melanie Goldish) to the humorous (Mr. Roy Marlow). The phrase “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” made several appearances, and several people wondered why current Minnesota Avenue tenants such as the Army Corps of Engineers had not been consulted. A few worried that an S-curve closer to the Lift Bridge would cause more congestion, as people wouldn’t be able to see what was going on; others noted that the alternative plan to simply alter the streets had been last-minute and poorly vetted. Many cited deep roots on Park Point, sharing personal and family histories dating back to the day the first carriage crossed the Lift Bridge. While the tone was largely respectful—several speakers, including Mr. Bill Burns, thanked the Council for its responsiveness to questions and willingness to visit the affected area—it was obvious that any changes would have to be forced past an army of angry residents.
After the overwhelming display of opposition, someone had to take up the unenviable task of defending the plan, and Councilor Gardner seized the opportunity. She said the plan was the result of a year and a half of hard work, was “halfway decent,” and sought to preserve the neighborhood near the bridge in the event of future construction, not destroy it. She pointed out that keeping things the same may not be possible if traffic continues to increase on the Point—which it likely will—and that it was her goal to route traffic toward commercial activity. Her suggestion that opposition to the plan was not as uniform as it seemed because proponents were scared of speaking out inspired some derisive laughter and comments from the crowd. President Krug rose to her feet, banged her gavel, demanded respect after the Council had respected the citizens’ views, and said she would order any further rabble-rousers to leave; a handful of people promptly left. (While I don’t doubt that the majority of people who care do not support the re-design, the reaction pretty much proved Councilor Gardner’s point. Who would want to endure that sort of reception?)
Most of the Councilors were respectful of the planning process, but slowly raised doubts. Even Councilor Sipress, who supported creating a small area plan for re-routing the S-curve, made it clear he would not vote for such a change if it came before the Council in the near future. Councilor Russ said her research suggested a change would not devalue affected houses if and when the city had to seize them to reroute traffic, but still was skeptical. The most pointed critic, unsurprisingly, was Councilor Fosle, who said the changes would put citizens in a “stranglehold” and that the city should not do anything until it is a “must.” He also made the suggestion (welcomed by Mr. Hamre) that the city convert the little-used tot lot at Franklin Park into a parking lot so as to accommodate more people at the 13th Street beach. President Krug suggested another such ad hoc fix, saying street parking on Lake Avenue north of the S-curve could be moved to the lake side of the avenue to make it easier to turn out of the side streets leading away from the development on Minnesota Avenue.
The debate also went to the core of several Councilors’ beliefs. “This is exactly why I ran for the Council,” said Councilor Fosle at the start of his comments. Councilor Julsrud asked deep questions, wondering “what does leadership look like?” in situations such as these. In this case, she declared, something that caused so much “consternation” ought to be sent back to the administration. Councilor Filipovich repeated his oft-used line on how “decisions are made by those who show up,” and both he and Councilor Russ pointed out that it could be brought back even if voted down. Councilor Sipress defended the very notion of long-term planning, making it clear he was no fan of extensive Park Point development, but that a re-routed S-curve would be a sensible contingency in the event of a future “traffic catastrophe” if the development continued. Councilor Larson, who is normally relentlessly positive, questioned the cost of the project. President Krug, who rarely goes against recommendations of city staff, came out in opposition, worrying about the narrow vote in the Planning Commission and the abruptness of the rerouted curve. Only Councilor Hanson kept his silence, though his votes—four ‘nos’—made his opinions abundantly clear.
In the end, the plan to re-route the S-curve failed 2-6-1, with Councilors Gardner and Sipress in support; Councilor Julsrud abstained, saying she didn’t want to vote against a good plan but wanted further discussion, and would rather it had been tabled. The alternative plan to widen streets drew even less support, with Council Russ as the lone ‘yes’ vote, and Councilor Julsrud again abstaining. The piecemeal approach to the plan did produce some results, though, as the utility infrastructure resolution and the shorefront access routes both passed 7-2, with Councilors Fosle and Hanson in opposition. Exhausted but mostly satisfied, the Park Pointers made their way to the exits.
The Council, however, soldiered on, and while it tabled everything related to a possible street repair fee to next meeting so that the resolutions would come up at the same time as several related ordinances, there were a few speakers who stuck it out to voice their displeasure. Ms. Bev Massey wondered what the citizens would be taxed for next time, while a Mr. Woods (presented without first name) lashed out about unanswered questions and financial mismanagement. Most everything else sailed through unanimously and with minimal debate, though Councilor Fosle did lodge his usual protest vote against the purchase of a new, expensive vehicle.
After the three-hour marathon, the Council pulled things together. Councilor Larson was happy to announce that Council meetings are now live streamed online (mwahaha, now they’ll never be rid of me), and Councilor Fosle invited everyone to an ATV training later in the week. Then, finally, the Councilors could exhale—at least until they take up street repairs in two weeks.
It was not a night that made it easy to maintain perspective. The Park Point plan was an issue that could seem like a life-or-death issue for some, and a silly waste of time for others. Perhaps it’s a display of civic engagement at its finest, and the power of people to make their voices heard; perhaps it’s NIMBYism at its worst, with a mob shouting down a fairly cautious and forward-thinking plan. It’s a reminder that democracy is never clean and efficient, for good or ill, and while I’m one of the bigger proponents of local-level politics you’ll find, it was also a reminder that these town meetings are often not idyllic exercises in harmonious community-building. It’s hard, it’s controversial, and someone is going to come away unhappy in the end.
Still, smart politicians know how to ride the waves of public sentiment, and the Council did so relatively well on Monday. It was never made entirely clear why the plan was necessary at this particular point in time—surely if current traffic patterns prove unsustainable, changes could be made in the future with or without a 2014 small area plan—and the hurry to push it through doomed things from the start. While a careful review suggested the plan wasn’t half as malicious as several of the speakers made it out to be, it had lost in the court of public opinion before it ever really came forward, and was effectively dead upon arrival. I’m not sure that more public engagement was necessarily the answer here—the public was obviously pretty engaged, and the people most affected were never going to be made happy. That said, the Council was wise to pull the issue apart into separate pieces and salvage some discussions for future planning, particularly on the beach access questions, which even the vocally opposed Councilor Fosle noted contained good “safeguards” for citizen input. Between those discussions and the eternal allure of further development along Park Point, these issues are never going to die. Future Councils will simply have to navigate these choppy waters as things develop, and ideally, Monday night’s concessions coupled with a handful of successful resolutions will be enough to sustain the necessary dialogue.