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Affairs of State (and Clinton)

By Jim Sack

Fort Wayne Reader

2011-12-01


There is not much pretty or inviting about Coliseum Boulevard. It is a gaggle of wires, signs, malls, asphalt and heavy traffic. Envision that along State Boulevard and you will understand why City councilman John Shoaff and scores of neighborhood leaders are fighting to protect the boulevard from becoming Coliseum II.

Here’s the background: regional planning agencies have decided State should relieve congestion on Coliseum, so they plan to widen Goshen Road, carve out bigger intersections and widen State to five lanes, to speed heavy traffic from Coliseum past North Side High School, past Hall’s, the Rib Room, St. Jude’s, Parkview, Hobson, Brentwood School out to I-469.

It will be a catastrophe for surrounding neighborhoods, according to John Shoaff, which will plummet in value. Natural features, such as Spy Run Creek, will be “engineered” for safety solutions.

To speed traffic, buildings will be razed so the curve west of Clinton Street can be “realigned.” Ironically, the sweeping curve was designed in 1917 to calm traffic and to give the area a park-like setting. Regional planners apparently don’t like park-like settings.

Plans call for raising State Boulevard at the creek some seven feet so flooding won’t hinder traffic. Statistics, used to justify the project, show flooding has rapidly picked up pace in the area, but little is done to stop the flooding. Impoundment ponds, seep-through parking lots and other remedies along Coliseum and Speedway Drive are eschewed in favor of higher dikes and home demolition.

The obvious costs will be many millions of tax dollars for fill dirt and plains of concrete for what resident Karen Richards, who is also the county prosecutor, believe is a remedy without a problem.

Opponents note that “traffic jams” are rare if ever seen on State. They add the real fix is needed on Coliseum Boulevard with its hundreds of curb cuts and ill-timed lights. Spending money on State as a relief route for Coliseum, they say, is simply a waste of money.

Shoaff and affected neighbors say transportation planners are overlooking other costs. Opponents point to the results of similar widening projects with the resultant deterioration of the surrounding neighborhoods. They explain that widening will slash property values, trade homeowners for renters and drain taxes for decades to stem the inevitable neighborhood deterioration and crime. Home values will be halved as a Harvester-style exodus begins. Hidden costs, they believe, will exceed the material and labor costs.

Karen Richards labels it “anticipator taking,” the process where homes diminish in value simply because of the impending widening. Home values drop, home owners flee, values drop farther, and eventually no one but renters remain to object to the concrete leviathan.

Regardless, say opponents: Coliseum will be just as crowded, many millions will have been spent on making State a thruway and every neighborhood along the way will be devalued in the face a forbidding 80’-wide no-mans land of concrete.

Engineers, however, have responded by promising a $50,000 beautification consulting fee for the $5 to $10 million project. “Window-dressing,” sneers Shoaff, nothing more than good money after bad. One neighbor says adding shrubbery is clearly an after-thought, akin to giving a skunk a perm. Moving more traffic faster is the only goal. If it takes some beautification to mollify the public then toss that in.

At a rare public hearing, two city council members told anxious neighbors to “trust the engineers,” but residents see an inexorable leviathan that will undermine their lives and eat their homes. They do not trust the engineers, nor have the engineers engendered much trust. Plans for the decades-old project were well along before the first public meeting was held; the projected was presented as a fait accompli. More window dressing, is how the public meeting process is described. A north side resident, Jill Downs, noted this project is not “citizen-driven,” rather imposed and justified by plans from the 1980s. Consequently, the few public meetings have been fraught with angry exchanges. Dan Wire, a neighborhood leader, calls it “simply wasteful.” Michelle Briggs Wedaman, head of the bulls-eyed Brookview Neighborhood, sees the project doing nothing less than destroying her picturesque area of attractive homes.

Mr. Shoaff’ is also frustrated because State Boulevard is the northern side of the celebrated 1912 Kessler Park & Boulevard System. The coming centenary gives Shoaff and others a comparison from which to criticize the 1980s redesign.

Shoaff says traffic calming just completed along the formerly noisy, dangerous Rudisill Boulevard, the Kessler Plan’s southern leg, has enhanced adjacent neighborhoods. He testifies that “calming” would improve property values, small businesses and “livability” on State Boulevard, as well.

Nationwide urban planners are applying a formula called “complete streets” whereby traffic compliments a neighborhood rather than overwhelming it. According to Mr. Shoaff, “national guidelines for road diets are proven over decades, have been endorsed and promoted by top national, regional and local planning organizations,” but seem ignored by Indiana transportation planners.

There are considerable forces who want this project, regardless of value. They start with the companies who do the work, sell the materials and turn the profits. Those companies are supported by politicians who later receive campaign “gifts.” In turn, politicians create unelected regional planning authorities who design major construction projects for those same politicians and their supporting cast of contractors. The regional planners give cover to state and local politicians to spend millions on bridges to nowhere and widening for widening’s sake. Affected citizens are told to trust the planners.

So, the neighborhoods and Mr. Shoaff are fighting a three-front war against vested interests who will profit from paving over neighborhoods, engineers who impose outdated mandates, and politicians who feel the urge cut a ribbon, and fill war-chests, for, as has recently been evidenced, campaign contributions flow in circles when concrete is involved.

Oh, and this project just pays for widening from Wells Street to Spy Run. Think five lanes from Forest Park Boulevard to St. Jude’s, past Blackhawk School and on to I-469.

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