By Gabby Landsverk, Staff Writer
Little Falls is preparing for proposed Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) projects by seeking input from local residents and business owners on potential infrastructure improvements along Highway 27 from downtown to Lindbergh Drive.
“If MnDOT is going to be doing something, it’s a chance for us to get in there as well,” said Public Works Director Greg Kimman. “I want to take advantage of the construction and save as much money as we can.”
Among the options proposed were increased parking, utility upgrades, better pedestrian access routes and railroad track improvements.
During an informal vote to assess residents’ priorities, a clear preference emerged for improvements to parking spaces, utilities and railroad crossings.
Utility improvements would be an efficient use of the MnDOT construction efforts, Kimman said, as city water and sewer pipes, some of which date as far back as 1890, could be replaced while the street was already torn up for MnDOT’s work.
Other improvements could make the downtown area of Little Falls more amenable to pedestrian traffic or more aesthetically appealing. One such option, a “bumpout” on street corners, would extend the width of the sidewalk on corners; this would give pedestrians a shorter distance to cross the road, as well as make space for landscaping features such as trees or flower beds.
Kimman said MnDOT would likely also address sidewalk improvements during the construction to make them more pedestrian-friendly and compliant with Americans with Disability Act (ADA) requirements.
While the sidewalks were compliant when they were installed, some downtown sidewalks are now too steep to meet accessibility standards.
Jerry Drellack, of Drellack insurance in Little Falls, voiced a strong opposition to altering sidewalks, fearing businesses would be saddled with snow removal/clean-up responsibilities.
“Not in front of my business you’re not putting in a step,” Drellack said. “There’s got to be some common sense here.”
In regard to snow plowing and removal, some of the layouts were more problematic than others, according to residents. The bumpouts, for instance, could make retrieving plowed snow a challenge, Kimman acknowledged.
“We would have to look at what options would be available,” Kimman said.
Business owners were primarily concerned with how the changes could effect the local economy by encouraging, or discouraging, potential customers from parking and perusing shops and services.
“I do not want Highway 27 in front of my business to be a one-way,” said Pete Kamrowski of Pete and Joy’s Bakery.
Weighing the costs and benefits of the plans produced mixed conclusions.
The bumpouts, for instance, while encouraging foot traffic, would take up space currently reserved for cars.
“You’re going to lose parking (with bumpouts), no doubt,” Kimman said.
Comments also identified a lack of law enforcement as a problem for business, as motorists frequently fail to stop for pedestrian right of way.
“The police department has to do their job and they can take care of the problem by talking to business owners,” Kamrowski said.
The Planning Commission acknowledged that heavy traffic was a factor in deciding which improvement would be a good fit for the neighborhood.
“(Highway) 27 is going to carry a lot of traffic,” said Commission Member Ray Schulte.
Additional features like landscaping, “parklets” and bike lane improvements were not voted as priorities by residents in attendance, although Kimman said other cities, such as Brainerd, have successfully added such features to downtown neighborhoods.
Kimman said no time frame has yet been finalized for either the MnDOT construction or the accompanying Little Falls city project, although 2019 or ‘20 is estimated.