Hawthorne greenway: A new occasion to oppose Bloomington’s autocratic planning

By Peter Dorfman

John Hamilton’s announcement that he isn’t running for a third term simplifies matters in the Bloomington mayoral race in 2023 — for now. He’s believed to have amassed a large campaign war chest. What will he do with the money? An obvious possibility is that he’ll pass it along to a sympathetic new candidate (possibly someone already connected with his administration), who would get into the race offering “continuity.” Candidates don’t officially file until January. 

Continuity with the grandiose, unrealistic growth plans of the Hamilton Administration is the last thing Bloomington needs. Anyway, we have another 13 months of that administration. So the Council, and the rest of us, have to contend with the policies of an autocratic mayor who isn’t worried about being re-elected.

Meanwhile, there’s a new controversy brewing in the Council, and it’s another important occasion for public comment.

The administration has big, ambitious growth plans for Bloomington. They inevitably involve urbanizing the core neighborhoods. That isn’t just a matter of apartment density. Street and sidewalk upgrades and new bicycle infrastructure are components of the administration’s vision for a bigger Bloomington, developed along what are becoming orthodox progressive lines.

The proposed Hawthorne-Weatherstone greenway project in Elm Heights is a perfect example. It’s big, it’s expensive, and its construction will permanently change the character of an old, established neighborhood where — if the response at recent neighborhood association meetings is any gauge — most of the residents on whom this project will be imposed are against it.

You might not be aware that the city doesn’t need the approval of those neighbors to move forward with the greenway project. They don’t even need City Council approval. Two years ago, the administration replaced its former neighborhood traffic safety program with a new traffic calming and greenways program. In the process, they removed Council oversight of these projects. The Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Commission now has the final say on these projects. They also, at the behest of Council Member Kate Rosenbarger, reduced a former requirement that such infrastructure changes secure majority approval among neighbors to 30% approval.

The argument that got the change passed in the Council was entirely based on pedestrian safety concerns. Greenways and protected bike lanes are, at most, only peripherally about pedestrian safety. In fact, there’s a very cogent argument that the Seven Line bike infrastructure and the removal of the stop signs endangered pedestrians on 7th Street.

The proposed greenway on Hawthorne and Weatherstone is basically about bicycle infrastructure — not pedestrian safety. It’s a component of a program to re-engineer neighborhoods to be more welcoming to bike traffic, and it seeks to impose that re-engineering, in top-down fashion, on residents of the affected streets whether they want it or not.

A principle needs to be established that new greenways and bike paths need neighborhood majority and City Council support, unless the Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Commission can offer quantitative proof that the affected area has a history of pedestrian safety problems (documented accidents) and that the proposed infrastructure change is specifically designed to mitigate that pedestrian danger. Encouraging more bicycle use — while not a bad thing in itself — should not justify imposition of those changes over majority resident opposition and definitely should not be a pretext to remove Council oversight.

Council Member Dave Rollo has introduced a new ordinance restoring the 51% approval requirement and Council oversight. It got its first read November 16, and the self-proclaimed “progressive wing” of the Council was predictably hostile.

Wednesday November 30, the Council Committee of the Whole is scheduled to take the matter up. There won’t be a vote, but there will be a lively debate. I am told that debate will happen regardless of whether they achieve a quorum. The quorum is in doubt because the Council is split ideologically and the ideologues have been boycotting Committee of the Whole meetings. But attending Council members and the public can hang around and chat as long as they like.

It’s important that a lot of people go to the November 30 meeting, at 6:30 pm, either in person or via Zoom, and give the Council an earful. It’s likely to be quite a show.

If you can, look in on the meeting and say your piece, or at least let your Council representative (and the three at-large reps) know you’re paying attention.

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