Bright Nights, Dark Days

Christopher Henderson

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.

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."

Such disputes aren't so rare these days, as lighting projects pop up around the city--some to applause, some to avid resistance. The Lyndale neighborhood in South Minneapolis has been circulating petitions for a year and a half for a lighting project, to be paid for fully by the property owners. In 1995 Central neighborhood activist David Piehl kicked off a drive to bring ornamental lights to his stretch of the city--a push wholly independent of both the neighborhood association and the NRP process, which means that the vote took only a few short months, and that his neighbors picked up the full tab for the lights: $1,800 per lot, on average--the neighborhood doesn't have the outsize lots that can be found in Prospect Park. The lights flickered on in January 1997, with little opposition.

In Lowry Hill East, also known as the Wedge, residents recently rebuffed a measure for ornamental lights similar to that of Prospect Park. Mail-in ballots sent out in December found 59 percent in favor, just shy of the 60 percent required to pass the project. But according to Elissa Cottle, the neighborhood's NRP coordinator, that majority was drawn from only those who voted--about 10 percent of Lowry's eligible voters. Cottle says the assessments, even with 25 percent of the total whittled off by NRP funds, would have ranged from $52 to $135 per year over 20 years for every property. "The cost was one issue," she adds. "A couple people called it 'light pollution.'"

But supporters of the project still see a lantern-style light at the end of the tunnel: Cottle says the city has recently changed the rules to allow the NRP to cover up to 90 percent of the cost. Considering the new financing options, they're hoping to take another vote this spring.

Given that change, if petitions were circulating today in Prospect Park, the dynamics, and the results, could easily be different. But for the neighborhood to shift the funding mix, the NRP's Miller says, they would need to formally modify their plan, have the neighborhood approve it, and take money from other parts of their plan to fund it. Good luck, given their track record on consensus on the basic to-light-or-not-to-light question over the past six years.

Similarly, 52 percent support for the lights wouldn't pass muster today. In March 1998 the Minneapolis City Council unanimously passed a measure that set the minimum petition percentage for decorative lighting at "65 percent of the affected property owners." Part of the impetus for that was an increase in lighting projects around the city, and a feeling that a uniform minimum made sense. But that does not retroactively change the Prospect Park petitioning process. "I don't think there's a neighborhood in the city that will support it to that degree," Gottlieb figures. "Certainly we wouldn't have been successful at 65 percent."

Council rep Campbell says she's getting plenty of calls from voters on both sides of the fight, but still defends her standard of a simple majority. "I did that because it was one of the three top priorities of their NRP plan," she stresses. "What's the matter with a majority? The petition process has been done, over 51 percent want it, and we are continuing the process as we promised."

The city's public works department is in the process of putting together the assessment notices to mail to Prospect Park property owners. Campbell will then convene a public meeting before the matter goes to the City Council, where approval appears likely. Still, Mary Schneider, Steve Ficker, and their naysaying allies remain steadfast in their dissent, and plan to keep on with their rage, rage against the buying of the lights.


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