Stevens Square street lights in need of repair

Stevens Square residents conduct a survey of non-working street lights on Jan. 14. Photo by Andrew Hazzard.

Walking the streets of Minneapolis’ most densely populated neighborhood at night, it’s easy to feel alone. The blocks of brownstones surrounding Stevens Square Park cast a uniform shadow over the sidewalks, shadows that grow longer in many locations where streetlights sit unilluminated.

Lighting in the area has been a prominent issue in the past couple years, where on any given night between 15 and 30 street lights are out across the Stevens Square neighborhood, according to residents tracking the issue and reporting outages to 311.

The lighting issues are amplified by winter’s darkness, which can create an eerie feeling when walking the streets at night in the Square, and the reconstruction of Interstate 35W, which led to several lights along 4th Avenue South being temporarily shut off and mountains of earth sprouting up on the neighborhood’s east side.

Maureen Wells has called Stevens Square home since 1974. She remembers when the neighborhood wasn’t such a safe place.  The area has changed drastically over the years, mostly for the better, she said, but the lack of lighting is making it feel less safe again.

“It’s not just a matter of aesthetics,” Wells said.

The historic district of brownstones just out of downtown is geographically the smallest neighborhood in the city yet is still split between two wards. Wells said she feels the issue wouldn’t have lasted this long in other parts of the city.

“This is an easy place for things to sort of slip through the cracks,” said Scott Artley, executive director of the Stevens Square Community Organization.

Who is responsible?

In 1991, the city entered a contract with Xcel Energy to install and maintain a historic feeling, decorative lighting system in Loring Park and Stevens Square, according to the Department of Public Works. That 25-year maintenance agreement ended in September 2016, Xcel Energy told the Southwest Journal. Since then, the city said, the utility provider and public works have worked together to fix provide lighting maintenance and discussing a long-term solution.

The lighting failures keep occurring with more frequency and complexity, the city said in a written statement. Public works will need to completely redo the system.

“Public works has determined that simple low-cost repairs will not solve the system-wide problems,” the city wrote in a statement.

Public works will start that process with community engagement starting next month, according to the city, and then work to implement a new lighting system through 2021.

Ryan SanCartier, a policy aide to Ward 6 City Council Member Abdi Warsame, came to a SSCO meeting in December to discuss the issue with residents. He told the Southwest Journal the Ward 6 office put in a formal request to city staff to formulate solutions to the problem by the end of January.

“Obviously we don’t want to leave a neighborhood in the dark and neither does public works,” SanCartier said.

Perhaps no one is more familiar with the problem than Dave Delvoye, the safety coordinator of the SSCO and a longtime neighborhood resident. Delvoye has been doing block patrol in the Square for 19 years. Since the lighting problem emerged, he’s diligently tracked which lights are out while on his patrol and maintained a detailed spreadsheet of the outages. After each patrol, he reports non-working lights to 311.

“To me, it’s unclear whose responsible for fixing the lights,” Delvoye said.

Depending on the work that’s needed, responsibilities are divided between the public works or Xcel Energy, the city said.

Wells said she’s seen Xcel Energy crews come out to fix a light only to say they’re not authorized to handle a particular problem.

“Is it Xcel? Is it the city? It doesn’t really matter,” she said.

Taking count

On most block patrols, it’s just a couple of people walking the streets with Delvoye. But on a light counting expedition on the warm night of Jan. 14, 8 volunteers assembled to walk the streets in yellow reflective vests.

“A lot of people are concerned and frustrated about this,” Delvoye said.

Stephanie Prosser and Naomi Petrie moved into the neighborhood about two years ago and have experienced the lighting issue the entire time they’ve lived there. Some of the temporary lights, which the city has installed on concrete cylinders that sit atop the sidewalks in places where lights can’t be fixed, have been there as long as they have, and don’t feel so temporary to them.

Delvoye had last done an official count in October. At that time, there were 20 lights on the Steven’s Square side of the neighborhood, and another 10 out across Nicollet Avenue in the Loring Heights section of the neighborhood.

The patrol on Jan. 14 focused on the Stevens Square side. On E. 17th Street, three lights were out between 1st Avenue South and Stevens Street. Lights on opposite corners of 19th & Clinton were out. On 19th & 3rd one of the light posts is missing altogether. As the patrol made another loop around E. 17th Street, a light at the corner of 2nd Avenue South began to flicker out, but regained life. Delvoye can report those, too, as 311 has an option for “flickering”.

As the patrol ended its shift and huddled in the Minneapolis Police Department’s neighborhood substation, Delvoye tallied up the results. The block patrol recorded 14 lights out in the Stevens Square. Delvoye found that of those 14, nine were carryovers from those recorded out in October and five were new; 11 had been fixed since his last count and reports to 311.

A survey of the Loring Heights section of the neighborhood on Jan. 21 found 10 lights out, nine of which were not working when last counted in May.

Sense of safety 

While Wells said she’s unsure if the lighting issues in Stevens Sqaure have led to more crime in the area, she’s confident it’s led to more litter, and more of a sense of insecurity.

Minneapolis Police Fifth Precinct Inspector Kathy Waite said while she’s aware of the lighting issue, police have no numbers indicating it has led to more reported incidents in the area. She agreed improved lighting can make a place safer.

“One of the things we point to when it comes to crime prevention is lighting up an area,” Waite said.

For longtime residents like Wells, the feeling of safety has helped create stability in the neighborhood, and as the lighting problems persist she can’t help but feel it’s becoming less safe again.

“The sense of safety is sometimes more important that the reality in many ways,” Artley said.