This week, I voted against a special assessment roll for sidewalks on Traver Road. The issue of these sidewalks has been presented to City Council several times over several months and at first I was supportive. My vote this week was a difficult decision that I considered carefully.
I am familiar with the area of Northside STEAM because I’m one of the families that has contributed to the traffic challenges there. My son takes a bus in the morning, but I often pick him up in the afternoon. I also worked there for a year and biked to the school on weekends when I needed to catch up in my classroom.
The conditions described by the residents on Traver are real – it’s a very steep hill, it’s a much less appealing way to approach that school (due to the hill, not lack of sidewalks), and it would be a nightmare as a drop off location for parents in cars. It gives me pause that this proposal went through a serious process via school committee, but even its proponents acknowledged shortcomings with that process, stakeholders they hadn’t included.
If I believed that the impacted residents were simply arguing against an expense, I would not have voted against this. If I thought they were just arguing against losing parking spots, I would not have voted against this. What pushed me over the top was concerns that the plan about to be implemented was not appropriate for the problem they were trying to solve. The school district – in efforts that, I’m told, stretched over years – failed to properly engage the community whose needs they were theoretically aiming to serve.
I believe in sidewalks. I absolutely grasp the value of them, for many many reasons (pedestrians, little kids on tricycles, so many good things). This was not a simple or straightforward decision for me, but I thought about how the different areas of our city function differently. E.g. The city has a map of sidewalk gaps, prioritized for completion based on who wants them and how they would be used. On the city’s map there are big areas, neighborhoods with no sidewalks, where even the city acknowledges that no one wants them, the city isn’t eager to build them. The people who live on Traver and walk their own children to school are in the best position to know how new sidewalks would be used.
It is unfortunate that people invested so much time in formulating a plan that did not include enough resident input. It is unfortunate that grant money has been lost. I don’t feel good about those things, but I felt a responsibility to consider this issue in terms of the specific area. I supported these sidewalks when they were first introduced to City Council, even as residents complained. As this issue dragged on for so many weeks and months, it became clear to me that the trajectory of efforts weren’t moving in a positive direction.
I believe there is still opportunity for a better safety solution. E.g. I hope the city can help residents get a stoplight at Barton/Traver, speed bumps on Traver, sidewalks built on the nearby streets that are more regularly used by neighborhood kids.
In the days since our Council meeting, two people have reached out to me with criticism re: my vote. I received one email from a resident, expressing his support for sidewalks and asking me to explain my decision. Much of the text above is a slightly edited version of what I replied to that resident. I welcome critical emails like that one because it opens a dialogue. Our town is full of serious, thoughtful advocates who have experience and perspective that is helpful to me.
The other person who reached out to me was a school district employee, who confronted me and my husband in public. She explained that she had been watching City Council with other school leaders, and announced to me (repeatedly and emphatically) that I was to blame for any child who ever dies on that street. To the extent that it’s possible to show empathy for a statement like that, I tried. Mostly, though, my husband and I were left to ponder the strategy of such a conversation-ending approach.
In my six months on Council, it has occurred to me that almost any idea can start to feel reasonable and logical when enough people validate each other about it. I’ve seen the accusation about “child who dies on the street” a couple of times on social media, presumably it has been bandied about elsewhere; then it became reasonable as a talking point in a conversation with me.
I do not know if there are any upcoming situations where City Council will be asked to approve AAPS projects, but clearly we need to communicate with each other. It’s important to me that City Council and AAPS work collaboratively together. Months ago, I was contacted by an AAPS administrator re: street improvements in the area of Huron; I returned her call within an hour, listened to what she had to say, and asked her as many questions as I could think of to fully understand her position.
In a community like ours, it is harder to reach good solutions when we don’t even try to hear each other. I am optimistic that AAPS leadership is capable of meaningful engagement, productive collaboration, and thoughtful conversations.
Moving forward, a situation like the Northside STEAM Safe Routes to School plan should not happen again, where impacted residents are left out of discussions and decisions are made without their input. I want to support future efforts to add sidewalks where they are needed and will serve the needs of our community. I know that not every effort will have complete buy-in and support but, at a minimum, all stakeholders must be invited to participate in the process.