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Eileen Nistler, left, and June Buenger examine one of the maps developed as part of the draft report for the Quality Neighborhood Initiative study, which is looking at the city's housing stock. An open house on the QNI was held Tuesday evening at Bemidji City Hall with consultants and staff. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Recommendations drafted for improving Bemidji neighborhoods

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News Bemidji,Minnesota 56619 http://www.bemidjipioneer.com/sites/default/files/styles/square_300/public/fieldimages/1/0806/201012231223-neighborhood-qna.jpg?itok=EvHDIcjp
Bemidji Pioneer
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Recommendations drafted for improving Bemidji neighborhoods
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

A draft plan has been developed that has suggested recommendations in six areas for improving and maintaining quality neighborhoods.

The Quality Neighborhood Initiative study is being led by city consultant Bonestroo out of St. Paul.

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An open house was held Tuesday evening at City Hall to offer the public the chance to view maps and review the recommendations from the QNI draft report. The complete, 148-page draft report can be found online on www.ci.bemidji.mn.us.

The open house was a follow-up to an October meeting, at which more than 80 people shared their experiences and input on their neighborhoods.

Philip Carlson, director of planning with Bonestroo, said the turnout to the open house was not as impressive, maybe about 20 people or so.

Study basics

The study examined three central neighborhoods, although the recommendations can be applied citywide.

The neighborhoods examined were the Bemidji State University corridor along Lake Bemidji, the neighborhoods just west and south of that, and the Nymore neighborhood.

Carlson said Bonestroo knew it was not going to be able to examine every neighborhood in Bemidji, so three areas were chosen. Two of them were more closely related to BSU, but all three purposely were planned to not be in close proximity to the college.

"These are not just university issues," he said.

The QNI study identifies a "quality neighborhood" as one that has active resident involvement, a safe environment, sound buildings, well-maintained yards and public spaces and sound public infrastructure.

"We highlighted issues that are probably applicable in many areas of the city and put together recommendations that could be implemented anywhere in the city," Carlson said.

Recommendations

There are six main parts to the draft recommendations - neighborhood organization, code enforcement, housing, parking, streets and other infrastructure and neighborhood evaluation.

Neighborhoods

The report advocates for neighborhood organization through the use of neighborhood watches and neighborhood associations.

"There is a limit to the impact the local governments can have on neighborhood quality without the active participation by the local residents," the report states. "It is not a coincidence that many of the best quality neighborhoods also have the most active neighborhood organizations."

The city could assist in the creation of such groups through having a "neighborhoods" page on its website and including contacts and information on how to get started.

Proposed action steps include:

- Work with law enforcement to expand neighborhood watch programs and promote activities such as National Night Out.

- Provide cooperation, guidance and assistance in encouraging active neighborhood associations. This could include hosting web pages for each neighborhood to update events and store neighborhood newsletters.

- Provide code enforcement education for neighborhood associations.

- Establish a process for neighborhood organizations to work with city resources for "neighborhood cleanup days."

- Establish a uniform block party process for neighborhood associations.

- Develop a process for installing identification signage in neighborhoods.

- Encourage neighborhood associations to reach and welcome new residents, including renters. In areas with extensive college rentals, efforts should be made every fall to introduce students to the neighborhood.

- Establish regular communication links with neighborhood associations regarding city actions and approvals.

- Encourage applicants to meet with applicable neighborhood associations prior to submitting a formal application to the city.

- Create a Neighborhood Services Team to implement the QNI plan.

Code enforcement

The report states that the city generally handles code enforcement once complaints are received.

"This kind of system can be effective when a city's housing stock is relatively new," it says. "However, once the natural decline of aging structures occurs and residents need to invest in their properties to reverse that natural decline, a more formal code enforcement process is often necessary."

Instead, the report suggests that the city should undergo active code enforcement.

To do so, it says the city should focus on an area of actionable size that would also be able to serve as a catalyst for citywide change. The city should initially focus on code compliance, police patrols, neighborhood cleanup, parking enforcement, neighborhood organization, street tree trimming or planning, and infrastructure repairs.

"The issue of code enforcement has been the top issue in all meetings of the Steering Committee and the community meeting, and there seems to be public support for increased code enforcement activities," the report states.

The cost of effective code enforcement should pay of itself in increased and stabilized property values, the report states.

Proposed action steps include:

- Identify a code enforcement officer and ensure he or she can adequately address code enforcement problems.

- Review municipal code to ensure that the code enforcement officer has effective and enforceable regulations to fight neighborhood decline.

- Establish an escalating fee structure that minimizes the impact on inadvertent violators but targets the frequent or noncompliant violators with enough incentive to take action.

- Target property owners and not tenants with code enforcement issues.

- When concentrated problem areas are identified, the city should create Neighborhood Action Teams for implementation of concentrated response strategies.

- Develop a Code Enforcement Handbook to provide a quick reference guide for residents.

- Work with BSU to develop a code enforcement and behavior educational piece for the beginning of each school year.

- Work with the BSU to develop a Move In, Move Out program, which arranges for free pickup and storage of furniture over the summer, and, in the fall, the storage area is emptied by students and community members for their homes.

Housing

The report advocates for the city to make sure its residents have access to safe, adequate and affordable housing, regardless of age, income or ethnic background.

While the whole QNI plan is aimed at housing quality, the report notes that there is a lack of viable high-density housing areas near BSU.

Action plans proposed include:

- Continued support between the city and Headwaters Regional Development Commission on local housing activities.

- Promoting housing resources for residents in city and agency websites and publications.

- Facilitate an annual home improvement fair in early spring to showcase local businesses and assist residents in planning their home improvement projects.

- Consider producing a rehabilitation handbook with topics such as the benefits of home improvement, how to plan a project, how to seek financing, how to work with a contractor and a list of resources and references.

- Consider providing a book to inspire more creative and effective renovation of common older homes by:

a. Producing a plan book for common design challenges in the community;

b. Securing a bulk price for a supply of similar books that have been already produced; or

c. Identifying a recommended list of books that could be purchased or made available at the public library.

Parking

Noting that most people rely on vehicles for transportation, the report also says that such vehicles generally spend more than 90 percent of their day parked.

Managing parking can have a significant effect on the character of a neighborhood, the report states.

Bonestroo proposes that:

- The city implement a voluntary residential parking permit program.

- Encourage the creation of an hourly car rental program, such as Zipcar, on the BSU campus.

- Require driveway paving in accordance with city codes as a condition of rental licensure renewal.

- Complete the bike lanes on 15th Street, Irvine Avenue and Fifth Street.

- Inventory sidewalks between the campus and Irvine Avenue to identify and address gaps; create annual, targeted sidewalk snow removal education for BSU students.

- Work with the transit program to evaluate the feasibility of using the parking lot at The Sanford Center to have a park and ride program to downtown and the BSU campus.

- Created a mixed-use redevelopment east of Paul Bunyan Drive Southeast to bridge the gap between BSU and the downtown.

Streets and infrastructure

The condition of streets and infrastructure can impact the quality of a neighborhood, according to the report.

"Just as the appearance of a blighted property can spread to other properties, the existence of deteriorating streets, sidewalks and streetlights can lead to the impression that the neighborhood is in decline," the report says.

The report noted that some areas of the city suffer frequent flooding, have unpaved roads, areas without street lights and speeding problems.

Action plans proposed include:

- Investigation into the perceived speeding problem on Fourth Street in Nymore and consideration of traffic-calming efforts.

- Investigation into non-motorized crossing points near BSU with neighborhood organizations to further define the location and severity of the problem crossing points and develop solutions.

- Work with neighborhood organizations to identify any locations of flooding, wet basements or sewage backups and work to develop a strategy to eliminate the problems.

- If lack of sump pumps is a significant issue, consider preparing a short informational piece that would explain the importance of sump pumps, how to test to see if one is functioning, approximate costs to install one, any sources of financial assistance and how to select a reliable contractor.

Neighborhood evaluation

The report says the city should embrace a neighborhood evaluation process to track neighborhood improvement over time.

The evaluation would look at building conditions, housing unit growth, building value per square foot, ownership pattern, infrastructure condition, nuisance violations and police calls.

Reflection

The recommendations developed were done so in response to the issues and problems cited by community members.

"This isn't an example of outside consultants coming in and solving Bemidji's problems," he said. "This is our best advice on how Bemidji people can solve and address their own problems."

He said it is up the city and its residents to change the direction of its housing issues.

"The solution doesn't come from the outside; solutions come from the inside," he said. "We're pulling together from what we heard, good ideas at the meetings, and information from other sources and experiences with city planning."

What's next?

The Steering Committee, a group of 15-20 community members, has met three times with Bonestroo consultants to discuss and provide direction on the study.

Carlson said consultants will meet with the Steering Committee early in 2011. He also said he wants to include city councilors and personnel from BSU.

Once those meetings occur, the final draft of the plan will be presented to the council for possibly adoption.

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Bethany Wesley
(218) 333-9200 x337
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