Bright Nights, Dark Days

How many neighbors does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Morning sun pours in through the front windows of Mary Schneider's century-old Victorian house on Clarence Street in Minneapolis's Prospect Park neighborhood. A few neighbors have gathered in the living room over coffee, pastries, and bulging manila folders to talk about what has become the most contentious issue along these city blocks in ages: lantern-style ornamental street lighting.

"I wouldn't mind if we got the lights, really," explains Schneider, who moved into her house in 1953 and raised five kids there. Her lot, like many in the neighborhood, is spacious and oddly configured to accommodate the rolling terrain and winding streets that border on the Mississippi River, the University of Minnesota, and St. Paul. "The only thing I'm objecting to is the cost," she goes on. "If it were more reasonable, I wouldn't give a darn." According to early estimates for installation of ornamental lights throughout Prospect Park, the bottom line for Schneider's share is $10,287.

Pedestrian-level street lighting has become an increasingly common demand from Minneapolitans who think the fixtures can serve as a crime deterrent and help spruce up their blocks. "A huge number of neighborhoods have it in as part of their [Neighborhood Revitalization Project] plans," says Sue Zarling, a parking and lighting engineer with the city's public works department. "The system does give you a better light level, a better light uniformity." Stretches of the Central and Loring Park neighborhoods already have ornamental lights, Lowry Hill just completed a sidewalk lighting project, and many other city hills and hollows are clamoring to follow suit, often as a part of NRP plans. But because these lights are supplemental to what the city already provides atop high, wooden poles, property owners have to pay either some or all of the fixtures' costs.

Christopher Henderson

The Prospect Park East River Road Improvement Association (PPERRIA) began drafting its NRP plan in 1993, and in 1995 approved a budget for spending its allocation of more than $3.2 million. Starting the following winter, petitioners made the rounds of the neighborhood, asking residents to support ornamental lights. No signature meant a default "no" vote. Susan Gottlieb, who coordinates the NRP for Prospect Park, says that what prompted the push for additional lighting was concern about safety, but she admits, "We're not talking about murder and rape...we're talking about petty crime that is sort of a livability issue."

The price of that "livability" is what has angered many Prospect Park residents ever since talk turned serious about installing the fixtures. Because only 21 percent of the lighting's estimated $1.77 million cost would be covered by the neighborhood's NRP funds, property owners would have to bear the majority of the expense--based on the total square footage of their property and paid for via special assessment, which can be stretched over 20 years, with interest.

PPERRIA turned in its petitions to the city in June 1997. City Council member Joan Campbell, who had been given discretion in setting the percentage of approval needed for the petition to pass, had asked for a simple majority of 51 percent. In the final count, residents representing 52 percent of the total acreage in the neighborhood voted in favor of the lights--a razor-thin victory.

Now, nearly two years later, there are still no new lights up in Prospect Park, and the bickering among residents hasn't quieted much--because critics of the plan won't give up, and because the date for final approval of the lighting plan draws near. The February edition of the Southeast Angle newspaper crackled with pointed commentaries from residents on both sides of the fence. Steve Ficker, one of the neighbors in Schneider's living room, weighed in on those pages. Ficker estimates his assessment will be somewhere between $1,800 and $2,400, and he's not about to pay without a fight.

This past November he and another neighbor filed a grievance against PPERRIA, charging that the group, at a June 1997 meeting, earmarked money for the new lights without the proper public input. The grievance was turned aside but may yet be taken up by NRP overseers.

Since then Ficker has been seeking a third-party hearing on the issue. NRP director Bob Miller declines comment on the grievance, noting that there's a chance it could come before his organization for a hearing. While he says the NRP does not require arbitration in these matters, he notes, "The request for mediation is one that the neighborhood should take seriously." It's hard to say, at this late date, what lengths naysayers might go to in order to turn out the lights.


Everyone who has come within shouting range of the NRP agrees that its wheels turn at a maddeningly slow pace, even for the most inveterate process junkie. PPERRIA began drafting its NRP plan in 1993 and didn't approve it until two years later. The petitioning on the lights question began in December 1996, and the results were turned over to the city the following June, but it wasn't until May 1998 that the results were announced. And still, a full six years after the ornamental light bulb first went on, the process lurches on.

Susan Gottlieb concedes that opponents of the ornamental lights have grown impatient and upset--not only with the snail's pace of the whole decision, but even more so about the whopping cost of installing and running the fixtures. "People do not want to spend money on something they view as extraneous," she says. "It's reached a point where neighborhood meetings are fairly unpleasant."

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