False bike lane rumor spreads on Eat Street

Mailed with fake signatures, letters spread confusion and misinformation about plans for the avenue

False claims about the city’s plans for bicycle lanes on Eat Street are being spread in anonymous mailings that have, in some cases, included faked signatures.

The letters claim City Council Member Lisa Bender “plans to abolish Eat Street” through a plan to add protected bicycle lanes and remove parking. The Minneapolis Bicycle Master Plan does not call for protected bicycle lanes on Eat Street, a multi-block segment of Nicollet Avenue known for its multicultural restaurant scene, and Bender has attempted to dispel the rumors, which began spreading on social media in recent days.

A version of the letter received Friday by the Southwest Journal was unsigned and included no return address. But other versions have included typed signatures indicating they were sent by Ricardo McCurley, executive director of the Whittier Alliance neighborhood organization, and Tammy Wong, owner of Rainbow Chinese.

Both have denied they were the source of the letter. Wong said she hadn’t heard about the letters until she was contacted by a reporter Tuesday morning.

Citizens for a Loring Park Community Coordinator Jana Metge said she received the version of the letter with Wong’s faked signature. It was read into the minutes during a recent CLPC committee meeting. That’s where Nicollet Diner owner Sam Turner said he saw it. Both Turner and Metge posted about the letter on Facebook.

The spread of the accusations online prompted a rebuttal from Bender.

“I guess I will take it as a compliment that people put a lot of effort into making up things to disagree with me about,” Bender wrote in a Facebook post. “… I’m disappointed that someone made up and distributed a flyer with this false info that seems to be spreading instead of dying down.”

The first-term City Council member is up for re-election in 2017 and faces a challenge from independent candidate Scott Fine. In an interview, Bender said she found the episode “disappointing” — especially the implication that the city would plan a bike lane project without public participation.

“It really undermines the relationship between the city and the community,” she said. “It’s not so much about me, per se, but more about how does the community feel about decisions the city is making.”

McCurley said Tuesday he first saw the letter two weeks ago when it arrived, unsigned, in a yellow envelope with no return address. After checking to make sure the information in the letter was false, he dismissed the letter as a “joke,” he said.

The next day, McCurley received a phone call from Erica Christ of Eat Street restaurant Black Forest Inn. Christ, who also chairs the Whittier Alliance board of directors, received a version of the letter with McCurley’s signature.

“We were kind of taking it seriously then,” he said, adding that he spoke with Bender’s Ward 10 office and again confirmed there were no plans for protected bicycle lanes on Eat Street.

Another copy of the letter arrived around March 21 at the Whittier Alliance’s offices just off of Nicollet Avenue. At that point, office staffers contacted Fifth Precinct crime prevention specialist Chelsea Adams, who relayed the organization’s concerns to the Minneapolis City Attorney’s office.

“We were concerned that somebody was impersonating us, and what was that going to do,” McCurley said. “They said, unless there’s money lost, it’s really a civil issue that somebody is impersonating you. And we didn’t feel the need to dispute it until it became a thing.”

He said the organization began tracking the rumor’s spread on social media after the owner of Christos Greek restaurant on Eat Street received a version of the letter last week and contacted the Whittier Alliance offices.

“We talked about posting something yesterday (on social media) and decided to hold off because it seemed like it was dying down, and then we noticed this Tammy Wong thing,” he said.

McCurley said members of his staff “were torn about how to respond” to the obviously false rumors, noting there are “chronic rabble-rousers in the neighborhood.”

“But the anonymity of it made it not fit anyone that has historically done things like this,” he added.

Speculating about the letter-writer’s motivation, McCurley said the neighborhood’s business owners have recently shared concerns about plans for protected bicycle lanes on 26th and 28th streets, which both intersect with the Eat Street segment of Nicollet Avenue.

“While those will have an impact on parking in the area, they’re not Nicollet,” he said. “They’re not going to ruin Eat Street, and no one feels like they will.”