Ten months after pedestrian death, improvements still sought at 54th & Penn

Pedestrians cross the street at the intersection of 54th & Penn, a busy business district at the convergence of three Southwest neighborhoods.  Photo by Andrew Hazzard.
Pedestrians cross the street at the intersection of 54th & Penn, a busy business district at the convergence of three Southwest neighborhoods. Photo by Andrew Hazzard.

Nearly a year after a pedestrian was struck and killed crossing Penn Avenue near 54th Street, community members are still searching for ways to make the busy business district safer.

On Feb. 2, 47-year-old Debra Skolos was struck and killed by a car shortly before 8:30 p.m. crossing Penn Avenue. She was just south of the intersection with 54th Street, not in the crosswalk, according to police. The Toyota RAV4 that struck her was driven by then 20-year-old Carl Louis Schaefbauer, who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor underage drinking and driving filed by the city attorney after being found to have a .03 blood-alcohol level, according to Minneapolis Police. Fifth Precinct Inspector Kathy Waite said he told officials he drank kombucha, a fermented tea beverage. The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office declined to charge Schaefbauer with criminal vehicular manslaughter. He was not found to be speeding or using his cellphone at the time of the crash. He received credit for serving three days in jail and was put on probation for two years, according to court records.

Ten months later, questions in the area linger about what could be done to make the intersection more pedestrian friendly. At a community panel in the Armatage neighborhood on Dec. 18, police and public works officials discussed the intersection with locals, many of whom called for immediate, small fixes to improve safety.

Residents at the meeting identified the main concerns for the crowded intersection, home to popular restaurants like Red Wagon Pizza, Colita and Book Club. For one, the intersection gets very dark at night, especially during the winter months. Another issue is the on-street parking that goes all the way to the intersection from all four sides, causing the road to narrow, also a bigger problem during the winter when snow pushes parkers further out to the road. Speed, too, is a concern, with many claiming the 30 mph speed limit often being ignored because there’s no stoplight between 50th and 54th Streets and vehicles pick up steam heading south on Penn Avenue down the hill near Minnehaha Creek.

Pedestrians cross the street at the intersection of 54th & Penn, a busy business district at the convergence of three Southwest neighborhoods. Photo by Andrew Hazzard.
Pedestrians cross the street at the intersection of 54th & Penn, a busy business district at the convergence of three Southwest neighborhoods. Photo by Andrew Hazzard.

Waite said controlling speed along corridors such as Penn and Xerxes is an ongoing battle for police. She said officers in marked squad cars driving the speed limits on those roads will frequently get passed by motorists and that she’s been tailgated in the area herself.

Last year, the City Council passed a resolution known as “Vision Zero” with a goal of eliminating pedestrian fatalities within Minneapolis by 2027. A crash study released by the city last year examined every pedestrian-car crash in the city from 2007-2016 and identified areas with the highest rates of incidents. Many were identified along county roads, such as Penn Avenue, but Penn & 54th was not identified as a problem area. Minneapolis Public Works traffic engineer Jennifer Lowry said outside of the fatal crash, public works hasn’t documented many issues at the intersection.

Ward 13 policy aide John Freude, Public Works traffic engineer Jennifer Lowry and MPD 5th Precinct Inspector Kathy Waite discuss pedestrian safety at 54th & Penn at an Armatage neighborhood meeting on Dec. 18. Photo by Andrew Hazzard.
Ward 13 policy aide John Freude, Public Works traffic engineer Jennifer Lowry and MPD 5th Precinct Inspector Kathy Waite discuss pedestrian safety at 54th & Penn at an Armatage neighborhood meeting on Dec. 18. Photo by Andrew Hazzard.

A realistic approach

Residents at the meeting had several suggestions: improved lighting around the intersection, both from the city and local businesses; adding flashing light for pedestrians to hit when they’re crossing the street; putting in additional marked crosswalks like the 50th & France intersection; putting in temporary signs that show drivers how much over the speed limit they’re driving; and lowering the speed limit.

A lot of those ideas sound logical, but many were shot down.

No matter what speed limit is posted on a road, motorists tend to drive the pace they feel comfortable going, Lowry said. The city has limited amounts of the temporary speed signs that tell people when they’re going over the limit and using those signs during the winter is difficult with snow.  Adding more signage or designated crossing areas, she said, doesn’t mean anyone will follow the instructions and has the chance to overwhelm drivers.

“A crosswalk in and of itself doesn’t make anything safer,” she added.

One man suggested police hammer the area with speeding enforcement, which Waite said she could do on slower nights when officers aren’t responding to many calls in the precinct. She reminded residents that despite complaints of commuters traveling too fast, it’s often locals doing the speeding.

John Freude, a policy aid to Ward 13 City Council Member Linea Palmisano, encouraged the residents to get involved with Vision Zero. He told attendees that their office gets a lot of requests for speed bumps in residential areas, but they find drivers just find new routes.

By the end of the meeting, some resident expressed frustration and expressed a desire to do something in the short term to help the intersection be safer.

“There’s no magic bullet, I think we all understand that,” said Armatage Neighborhood Association President Joel Federer. “…I think what we’re trying to do is make a dent.”

Much of the work, Waite said, is going to have to originate at the community level with people taking the time to walk up to cross walks and driving slower in their own cars to set an example.

“Some of this has to be grassroots,” she said

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