In the Dark

Moratorium thwarts efforts to enhance street lighting

Nancy Dedak doesn’t walk to the Uptown Lunds grocery store after dark anymore.

The CARAG resident’s husband was robbed at gunpoint in front of her garage last spring. Graduate student Michael Zebuhr was shot and killed nearby a week later. Walking from brightly lit Uptown into her significantly darker neighborhood makes Dedak feel vulnerable.

“We’re sitting ducks in this neighborhood,” Dedak said. “We’re not doing the smart, proactive things to prevent easy crime.”

One of those things, Dedak said, is improving the lighting in the area. After the Zebuhr murder, improved lighting was a hot topic. City Councilmember Ralph Remington (10th Ward) said two of his top priorities at the time were getting more cops and improved streetlights. The cops proved easier to get, he said.

A moratorium on new street lighting has prevented significant light enhancement in neighborhoods throughout Minneapolis for four years. Enacted in August 2002, the moratorium was put in place to prevent new light installation during the development of a citywide street lighting plan. Safety concerns have not been enough to skirt the moratorium, but some residents think exceptions should be made.

Dissecting the moratorium

The lighting moratorium is largely the result of a disputed streetlight petitioning and funding process that requires “at least 65 percent of the total square footage of affected property owners” to agree to new lights. Property owners are assessed and pay for the new lights through taxes. The smallest area the city considers for new lighting under current policy is four contiguous blocks.

The process for receiving new lighting has been evaluated for the lighting plan, as has the type, quality and quantity of lighting needed in the city, said Beverly Warmka, the city’s streetlight engineer. Much of the work is complete, and a lighting plan drafted back in 2004 almost lifted the moratorium, but the City Council requested further research including a visibility study. Public Works employees are waiting for the findings of that study to complete the plan.

Warmka said she expects to take a plan draft to the Minneapolis community for feedback early in 2007 and it is expected to go to the City Council in mid-2007. The Council must approve the plan for the moratorium to be lifted.

Though the moratorium has thwarted hopes of improved lighting in some neighborhoods, it has not held back every lighting project in Minneapolis. Some projects were allowed as long as petitions for new lights were submitted before the moratorium. The Kingfield neighborhood has been working on getting new lights installed along Nicollet Avenue for several years. The last lights of that project turned on this month.

Lighting projects along roadways scheduled for reconstruction have also been allowed. Just this fall, enough petitions were received from residents along Lyndale Avenue between Minnehaha Creek and 31st Street to allow for brand new lights on that stretch. Lyndale will be rebuilt next year.

The last exception to the moratorium involves lights installed in areas where lighting is below current city standards – if a light appears to be missing, for example.

No other exceptions to the moratorium have been made, Warmka said, and several neighborhoods are “waiting in the wings.”

Waiting at City Hall

Remington said improving street lighting in neighborhoods near Uptown is something he would continue to pursue.

“In my opinion, I think some of those neighborhoods are particularly dark,” Remington said.

He was successful in adding one new street light and repairing another in CARAG last spring, but the moratorium halted any further lighting improvement, he said. Requesting an exception to the moratorium for one neighborhood would likely prompt other councilmembers to seek lights for their wards, creating priority issues and political tension, he said.

Councilmember Elizabeth Glidden (8th Ward) echoed Remington’s comments.

“We can’t do this thing where the neighborhood that screams the loudest gets lighting,” Glidden said.

Eighth Ward residents in Powderhorn, Central and near 38th Street and Chicago Avenue have told Glidden new lighting is needed, she said. Despite the requests, Glidden said now is the wrong time to try to get around the moratorium since the city is close to implementing a better lighting plan and improved petitioning and funding procedures.

She said neighborhoods often overplay lighting’s relationship to crime and noted that it is one of many crime-prevention tools.

“Lighting is a small piece of making neighborhoods safe,” she said.

The connection to crime

Insp. Kristine Arneson of the Minneapolis Police Department’s 5th Precinct said, “It’s a well known fact” that well-lit areas tend to have less crime.

“I don’t know of any research that concludes that lighting deters crime,” she said. “But my 22 years as a cop tells me that it’s well worth the effort.”

Jon Wertjes, director of traffic and parking services for Minneapolis, said he does not believe the moratorium has created a safety issue in the city.

“The light levels out there are pretty consistent across the city,” Wertjes said.

He said Public Works is attempting to address any safety concerns that come up. Transitions from commercial to residential areas – common areas of concern for residents – are being looked at as part of the city’s planning process, he said.

Some residents, such as Linden Hills resident Austin Ditzler, prefer not to have additional streetlights near their homes. Two new lights near his house on the 3800 block of Drew Avenue take away from the character of the neighborhood, he said. He is also concerned about safety issues created by another power line.

A heated discussion about CARAG lighting recently took place on the neighborhood’s e-mail forum. Because of the discussion, street lighting was a topic at the Calhoun Area Residents Action Group’s (CARAG) crime and safety committee meeting this month. CARAG Community Coordinator Scott Engel noted that in the past, the group’s board has not found much interest in new streetlights among community members. CARAG does have a lighting program enabling residents to install lights on the front of their homes or businesses. The organization was also recently successful in getting four new lights for Bryant Square Park. Because of recent lighting concerns, CARAG board member Rick Bojko said he would start keeping inventory of burnt-out lights and dark areas in the neighborhood.

Tom Gallagher, a CARAG resident and defense attorney who participated in the e-mail exchange, is a believer in light as a crime-prevention tool. In an interview, he guessed that much of the crime in the area is the result of criminals following bar and restaurant patrons out of commercial nodes and into darker residential areas. Robberies, which have been on the rise, could probably be prevented in many cases if lighting were better, Gallagher said.

He was disappointed to learn of the moratorium. “I would think that our political representatives would pass a resolution changing that in circumstances of safety,” he said.

Dedak said she doesn’t expect her neighborhood to be crime free, but she said the neighborhood needs more than well-lit porches to make her feel safe after last spring’s incidents.

“There should have been a better dialogue,” Dedak said. “This (crime) warrants a conversation. It warrants an exception.”

 

Streetlight 101

 

Minneapolis has more than 35,000 streetlights. A two-man crew from the Public Works Department maintains roughly 20,000 of the lights and Xcel Energy keeps up the rest through a contract with the city.

The city maintains lights on metal poles, including those along park perimeters, and Xcel maintains alley lights and lights on wooden poles. Both the city and Xcel rely heavily on reports from residents to identify burnt out or malfunctioning lights. To report a problem light, here’s what to do:

– Call 311. Have the address nearest the light ready and be prepared to describe the type of light pole. You can report problems with city-maintained and Xcel-maintained lights.

– Call Xcel directly at 1-800-960-6235 to report problems with lights in an alley or on wooden poles. Again, have the address ready.

– File a report online at www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/contact/email-form-streetlight.asp for city-maintained lights and www1.xcelenergy.com/odl/ for Xcel-maintained lights. City staff said a revised Web reporting system for all lights should be up and running within a few weeks.

After a report is made, light repair could take from a couple days to a couple weeks. Public works personnel advise residents not to attempt to repair lights themselves.