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Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
The mirror at the corner of West State Boulevard and Westbrook Drive that reflects oncoming traffic along State will no longer be needed.

State of State Boulevard

Neighbors left wary by rerouting

The Journal Gazette
The Journal Gazette

Start at Wells Street and drive east on State Boulevard. One of the first things you will see after passing between the crumbling concrete ruins of an abandoned railroad overpass is a large mirror attached to a pole on the southwest corner of the intersection of State and Westbrook Drive. The mirror is a necessary – but primitive – device that helps motorists on Westbrook see oncoming traffic on State.

Continuing along State, you will drive over Spy Run Creek on an easily overlooked bridge and then along a significant curve in the road through the attractive and unique neighborhood of Brookview-Irvington Park until you come to the stoplight at Clinton Street.

The same drive will be radically different several years from now as part of a controversial project to widen and straighten this stretch of State Boulevard. The mirror will, thankfully, be gone.

But – unless opponents can kill or change the plan – so will as many as 11 of the homes in this charming and historic neighborhood.

City officials assert the project will improve safety for motorists and pedestrians and alleviate flooding problems in the area.

But many neighbors, as well as Councilman John Shoaff, are convinced the project is driven by ulterior motives to transform the road into a major thoroughfare that will actually increase traffic, decrease safety and do little to reduce flooding.

There is also a concern that the increased traffic resulting from this project could irrevocably harm all the neighborhoods further east along State Boulevard.

“My primary concern is the degradation of the quality of life in that neighborhood and the decline of property values. I don’t think our city can afford to start trashing neighborhoods,” Shoaff said. “And that neighborhood is of historical value and is particularly attractive. They (city staff) haven’t been required over the years to work with the public on this project, and they continue to find a variety of ways to avoid working with the public on this.”

Shoaff is so opposed to the project he made fighting it an issue during his most recent re-election campaign.

Project details

Construction was supposed to start in 2011. But it’s been delayed to accommodate the Indiana Department of Transportation’s Clinton Street project, which requires the six-month closure of Clinton. The city also needs to complete crucial environmental and engineering studies.

The project calls for widening State from two lanes to four travel lanes and an intermittent fifth turn lane where needed, softening the curve between Eastbrook and Westbrook drives, and raising the bridge over Spy Run Creek by 7 to 8 feet. The project also includes construction of a portion of the Pufferbelly Trail, including an overpass bridge over State Boulevard along the old New York Central railroad line.

City leaders estimate the project will cost $11 million. Federal transportation dollars will pay for 80 percent, and the city will cover the remaining 20 percent. The project will be completed in two phases. The section between Spy Run and Clinton is scheduled for 2013, and the more complicated section between Clinton and Cass Street for 2014.

The delay is a good thing. It’s given city officials an opportunity to truly consider residents’ concerns and make needed improvements to the plan.

“The process has been very disjointed and contentious. It’s been like a chess game. It’s been very difficult to piece together the truth,” said Michelle Briggs Wedaman, president of the Brookview Neighborhood Association.

She said it was neighborhood leaders, historic preservation advocates and Shoaff who had to lobby city leaders to convince them to have the necessary city resources – including traffic engineering, flood control, historic preservation, landscape design and trails staff – work collaboratively on the project.

“Nobody, including myself, is against change. Nobody is against doing projects,” Briggs Wedaman said. “Considering the millions of public dollars they are spending on it, we have a right to ask questions and to have input. This stuff is irreversible. So, that’s a reason for us to fight for it to be done right.”

Neighbors’ concerns

Jill Gutreuter lives in the Forest Park Boulevard neighborhood about a mile and a half east of the proposed project but is concerned about the damage the project will do to all of the neighborhoods along State.

“Why would you want to devalue a solid, stable inner-city neighborhood by putting a speedway through it?” she asked.

She attended the Northeastern Indiana Regional Coordinating Council’s March 19 public meeting on the 2013-16 Transportation Improvement Program. “There was nothing in the 2013 plan that was descriptive of the havoc that is going to happen east of Clinton,” Gutreuter said.

The city has no plans to widen State Boulevard between Clinton Street and Coliseum Boulevard. But Shoaff thinks the increased traffic on State because of this project will force local transportation officials to reconsider.

“The major problem is the concept and the goal is wrong,” Shoaff said. “Coliseum Boulevard was created to be a major arterial. I-469 was created to be a major arterial, and that’s all good and appropriate. State Boulevard was not. All of this is just a very inappropriate intrusion into neighborhoods with an arterial expansion.”

City officials insist the objective of the project is not to increase traffic or traffic speed but to remove a bottleneck and help existing traffic move more smoothly through the area.

“We expect the growth to continue as it has grown. The traffic we are trying to address is the traffic that already exists,” said Shan Gunawardena, city traffic engineer. “You see changes in traffic when you change land use. We’re not changing land use.”

But the Field of Dreams rule applies here. If they build it, the cars will come. The reality is if the project makes traffic flow more efficiently, it will attract more traffic.

It’s interesting to note at the same time city leaders are making plans to make traffic move more efficiently on State Boulevard, they are working on projects downtown to slow traffic by reducing traffic lanes.

Historic preservation

“It’s building the equivalent of Jefferson Boulevard through a quiet neighborhood,” said Michael Galbraith, executive director of ARCH, the local historic preservation group. “If we’re talking about building investment in downtown Fort Wayne or the surrounding neighborhoods, it makes no sense to disrupt a neighborhood that we should be concentrating on encouraging people to live in. It’s got great amenities: Curving streets, a nice park, a winding stream, beautiful trees. It’s the kind of neighborhood that makes people in other parts of the country envy us.”

Any project paid for with federal money has to go through a review for any potential adverse effects. Galbraith said ARCH regularly reviews these Section 106 reports.

Arthur Shurcliff designed Brookview in 1917. The Brookview-Irvington Park Historic District garnered a place on the National Register of Historic Places by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2011. The city’s park and boulevard system also earned a place on the national registry in 2011.

Ripping out homes in a historic neighborhood along a historic boulevard is in itself an adverse effect.

“I’m hopeful that as we continue to look at this, it will be modified or changed so that it won’t harm the neighborhood,” Galbraith said. “It’s difficult justifying this as being a good idea.”

Addressing the concerns

City officials are responding to residents’ concerns by making significant changes to the plan to address the issues raised.

“We are trying to make this look more like a residential neighborhood than it does now,” said Bob Kennedy, Fort Wayne director of public works.

The plan now calls for creating a new entrance to the neighborhood on Oakridge and closing off Eastbrook using the existing curve of State Boulevard. The change will eliminate one of residents’ biggest complaints: people using their neighborhood as a cut-through to Clinton.

“How the neighborhood connects to State is a direct result of feedback from neighbors,” said Tom Cain, a city urban planner.

The updated plan also includes ornamental lighting, increased landscaping and sidewalks on both sides of State that don’t currently exist. It also includes a tree-lined median where the turn lane is not needed that will include a pedestrian crosswalk, making it much easier for pedestrians to safely cross the road.

Gunawardena said the trees as well as posted speed limits and narrower lanes will “keep traffic flowing, but keep it slow.”

“While we are adding a lane, we are keeping the lanes narrower to slow traffic,” he said. A typical lane is 11 to 12 feet wide. These lanes will be 10 feet wide. There will also no longer be any driveways on State between Cass and Clinton after the project is complete.

He said, “The existing conditions are substantially less safe than what we are proposing.”

Unfortunately, neighbors don’t know about many of the changes city officials are proposing because they are waiting to publicly vet it after the Section 106 report is final in case there are more issues to address.

The city plans to schedule a meeting in July with all of the project’s consulting parties. “Then the public will be able to see what the project will actually look like,” Gunawardena said.

Any road project requiring the destruction of residents’ homes, especially homes in a historic neighborhood, is bound to have outspoken opposition. But it appears city leaders did a poor job of communicating with and seeking opinions from the residents directly affected by the massive project when it was first announced. As a result, city leaders are playing catch-up to regain neighbors’ trust.

Stacey Stumpf is an editorial writer for The Journal Gazette. She lives in a neighborhood further east of the State Boulevard project.