Stevens Point poised to create new gap in existing signed bicycle route along Ellis St

At the upcoming Stevens Point Board of Public Works meeting on Monday January 11, the city will consider an ordinance to make Ellis St one-way westbound on the one block between Church St and Strongs Ave. This block of Ellis is in the area immediately north of City Hall and abuts the Sentry Insurance downtown office building.

ellis one way map agenda

Portion of a map from the January Public Works agenda showing the proposal to make Ellis one-way westbound between Church and Strongs. Sentry’s downtown office building spans the full block of the east side of Strongs between Ellis and Clark.

This portion of Ellis is currently a city-designated signed bicycle route. By making Ellis one-way along this block, a new gap will be created for people bicycling eastbound along Ellis.

For someone riding a bicycle, finding a comfortable eastbound route from the downtown square to the area immediately south of Clark St can be challenging. Making Ellis one-way westbound would create a new eastbound gap in our bicycle network in an area with limited good eastbound bicycle routes.

For Poky Pedalers who wish to voice their opinion about this ordinance proposal, the Board of Public Works is scheduled to meet on Monday January 11 at 6:10 PM in the Lincoln Center (1519 Water St). (The collection of city meetings will begin at 5:50 PM, and the Public Works meeting will be the fourth meeting. The first three meetings should each be short so that Public Works will likely begin close to its scheduled start time.) This ordinance proposal is agenda item 2.

The meeting is open to the public, and during this agenda item there should be an opportunity for anyone to express their opinion on this proposed ordinance. Anyone wishing to speak should expect approximately 3 minutes for making their statement.

Why is Ellis being proposed as one-way?
The rationale for making Ellis one-way between Church and Strongs can be found in the agenda and minutes of the December 14 Board of Public Works meeting. The issue up for consideration at that meeting was agenda item 4. (Do not confuse this with agenda item 3 at that meeting, which was about parking on a different portion of Ellis.)

Before I discuss the events of the December Public Works meeting, it is useful to give a bit of background from an earlier city meeting.

Sentry Insurance has been seeking solutions to parking issues at their downtown office building. Their parking lots bordering Ellis St do not meet existing employee demand. At the November 4 Stevens Point Historical Preservation/Design Review Commission meeting, Sentry floated the idea of removing greenspace they own along Clark St next to their downtown office building in order to expand their adjacent parking lot.

According to the November 13 edition of the Portage County Gazette in a column on page 13 written by Steve Hill, this proposal met resistance from several community members and was turned down by the commission. Hill further reported that Sentry was working with the city to address their parking issues through use of a parking lot south of Clark St and east of Third St, less than two blocks away from Sentry’s office building.

map sentry parking

The ‘E’-shaped building toward the right of this image from Google Maps is Sentry’s downtown office building. They currently have parking lots on much of the eastern portion of that same block and also on the full block immediately to the south. The possible additional parking lot reported in the Portage County Gazette is about 2 blocks west in the open area east of 3rd St.

At the December 14 Board of Public Works meeting, a new proposal from Sentry was discussed to create angle parking on the north side of Ellis between Church and Strongs. Twenty-five additional parking spaces would be created in this proposal. Because of the width of Ellis, if this reconfiguration is done solely through restriping the existing pavement, then Ellis must be restricted to a one-way street on this block.

map sentry ellis parking proposal

Map of Sentry proposal for angle parking on Ellis St taken from the December Public Works agenda packet. The angle parking can be seen on the north side of Ellis, which runs horizontally through the middle of this map. The block to the north shows the Sentry building to the west and one existing employee parking lot. The block to the south shows the other existing employee parking lot.

Of course, making a street one-way affects all vehicular users, including those riding bicycles. This brings to mind the possibility of providing a contra-flow bike lane to provide legal two-way access on this block for people bicycling. Unfortunately, the width of Ellis does not permit enough room for an on-pavement contra-flow bicycle lane as part of this angle parking proposal.

Although these would be public parking spaces available for anyone, it is apparent that during normal weekday work hours, close to 100% of these angle parking spaces would be used by Sentry employees. The proposal restricts the public right-of-way to effectively create additional parking for a private company during the typical 40-hour workweek. The appropriateness of restricting the public right-of-way primarily for the benefit of one private company is, at best, questionable.

What considerations for bicycling were made in the proposal presented at the December Public Works meeting?
The agenda packet for the December Public Works meeting includes some discussion of Sentry’s proposal by Stevens Point Public Works Director Scott Schatschneider. This discussion, which is on page 22 of the agenda packet, makes no mention or analysis regarding its impact to people bicycling. The statement from Schatschneider in the agenda packet states: “Staff does not think the modifications would be negative…”

Considering the obvious negative impact of creating an eastbound gap on a city-designated signed bicycle route in an area with limited good eastbound bicycle routes, the city clearly ignored the impact to transportation bicycling when considering this proposal.

map city bike routes ellis

Portion of the Stevens Point bicycle route map found on the city website. The solid beige lines are signed bicycle routes. Ellis runs horizontally in the right half of the center of this map, ending in a northward hook  to where it meets Clark. East/west routes through the city center include CenterPoint Dr and Main St, which are one-way westbound, and Clark St, which has moderate traffic volumes and speeds. The scarcity of bike routes through the downtown area, coupled with CenterPoint, Main, and Clark all being poor eastbound options for people bicycling, illustrates the issue with creating an eastbound gap in the bicycle network along Ellis.

Five days before the December Public Works meeting, I wrote an e-mail message to Schatschneider expressing my concerns with this proposal and pointing out the absence of consideration for people bicycling in his agenda packet statement. In that e-mail, I asked him to do some further analysis to come up with a few options for mitigating this proposal’s adverse impact on bicycle transportation and to present these at the meeting.

During the Public Works meeting, no results from any such analysis was presented by either Schatschneider or Mayor Mike Wiza, who chaired the meeting. Wiza made an offhand comment during the meeting that people bicycling eastbound could legally use the sidewalk for this one block. While technically an option, sidewalk bicycling should generally be discouraged for safety reasons. This comment falls woefully short of any reasonable standard for seriously considering ways to mitigate the impact to those who bicycle for transportation.

Three members of the public, myself among them, spoke against this proposal at the December Public Works meeting because of its adverse impact on bicycle transportation. My statement at the meeting reflected the concerns I state above. (The summary of my statement in the meeting minutes posted to the city website does not capture the full breadth of my comments.)

A representative from Sentry, Eric Skille, also spoke at the meeting. He stated that requiring Sentry employees to walk two blocks from a parking spot to the entrance of the Sentry office building would be a hardship and a liability.

Using Google Maps, I estimated this two-block walk to be approximately 750 feet. I also estimated that the walk from the most distant existing Sentry employee parking space – the southernmost point of the block south of the Sentry building – to the entrance of the Sentry office building is approximately 525 feet. In my opinion, since it seems unreasonable to expect additional parking to be closer than the current most distant parking space, then it does not seem unreasonable to expect some employees to walk 750 feet from their parking spot to their workplace.

This agenda item at the December Public Works meeting was for discussion only. No action was taken by the Board. The only official action the city needs to take to implement this angle parking proposal is to pass an ordinance making this block of Ellis a one-way street. This is why such an ordinance is up for consideration at the January Public Works meeting. If this ordinance is approved, the city may restripe the pavement as it pleases to create the proposed angle parking.

Related information
Five days before the December Public Works meeting, I contacted the Chair of the Stevens Point Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, Tori Jennings, as well as Vice Chair Trevor Roark, about this proposal. In that e-mail, I expressed the same concerns that I mentioned above and asked that this topic be added to the December BPAC meeting (scheduled 8 days after the Public Works meeting) to allow the committee to state its preferences for mitigating the impact of this proposal on people bicycling. Jennings replied to my e-mail that she agreed with my concerns. Nevertheless, no such agenda item was added to the December BPAC meeting.

To my knowledge, the BPAC still has not made any public statement about this proposal. No one from the BPAC spoke on the proposal at the December Public Works meeting. I presume that a fundamental purpose of the BPAC is to be a voice within our city government looking out for the interests of people who bicycle and walk for transportation in Stevens Point. I feel their silence on this issue is disturbingly curious.

I understand the parking constraints that Sentry faces near its downtown office. One way they could approach their problem is to identify ways to encourage their employees to drive their cars and trucks to work less frequently. Whether the alternative is walking, biking, transit, or carpooling, reducing parking demand is a viable approach to solving their parking issue without adversely affecting the city’s bicycle network.

As an example, Sentry could ask downtown employees to commit to arrive at work one day per week year-round without using their personal automobiles. Sentry could coordinate among their employees to spread the non-driving days evenly across the workweek. They could also offer financial incentives to encourage participation. If three-quarters of their employees participate, parking demand would be reduced by 15%. I suspect this would go a long way towards resolving Sentry’s long-term downtown parking demand.

I offer this suggestion as one alternative to the idea that the only way to deal with parking issues is to build more parking. Sentry has the opportunity to become a community leader in encouraging less automobile use for employee commuting. Unfortunately, I have yet to hear any credible statement by any representative from Sentry stating that the company has taken meaningful action to encourage their employees to sometimes commute to work via a mode that does not involve driving their own personal car or truck.

On this topic, I happened to have a chance conversation with Mayor Wiza when coming upon him inside the Main St post office two days after the December Public Works meeting. Unprompted, he immediately started a friendly yet pointed conversation with me about the Sentry proposal and bicycling that lasted approximately 10 minutes.

Among his comments, Wiza mentioned that the Sentry proposal was a temporary fix and that the ultimate solution is for Sentry to build a parking structure, which would be extremely expensive. I immediately pointed out that he was incorrect and that the ultimate solution is to reduce by 20% the number of cars and trucks driven to work by Sentry downtown employees. Sadly, Wiza scoffed at this notion.

Final comments
Wiza’s reaction to the concept of reducing demand for parking illustrates that our civic leaders do not fully grasp the adverse affect of providing more and more parking spaces in a downtown core already overbuilt with parking lots.

Employers throughout our city recognize that sustaining the economic health of Stevens Point depends on creating a vibrant city convenient for walking and biking in order to attract the young creative professionals they need to hire in the near future.

Overbuilding parking lots will destroy vibrancy because people like walking past homes and stores, not asphalt lots. Creating a new gap on one bicycle route degrades the entire value of a city’s bicycle network.

At one level, the January Public Works agenda item proposing to make Ellis one-way is a small issue. Most people who bicycle will accept one of the suboptimal alternatives for getting from A to B when their path would otherwise take them eastbound on Ellis between Strongs and Church.

On the other hand, the story of this agenda item demonstrates a vast disconnect between the statements made by local leaders in support of bicycling and the lack of action to support bicycling when what they perceive as “real” city business needs to be conducted. Until our leaders fully embrace the notion that making bicycling and walking better is “real” city business, our local economic progress will stumble as we become more like Detroit than Minneapolis.

If Poky Pedalers agree with this sentiment, then I strongly encourage you to attend the January Board of Public Works meeting on Monday and speak your opinions about creating a gap in the city-designated signed bicycle route along Ellis.


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