City council backs Baker sports plans
In the end, after weeks of discussion and a public hearing, the vote was quick and decisive. The Baldwin City Council voted 4-1 to vacate Fremont and Second streets bordering Baker University's Liston Stadium at Monday's meeting.
The vote allows Baker to close Fremont between First and Second streets and the 600 and 700 blocks of Second Street. When asked when that would happen, Baker officials said as soon as possible, once the ordinance passed at Monday night's meeting was published in the Signal.
But, there was much discussion before it ever got to that point. The main issue, from Baker's standpoint, is safety in the area. With the new baseball and softball fields now in use, it has changed the dynamics of the area. Plus, the plan calls for a parking lot to be installed north of Liston Stadium and the portion of Fremont will be used with that.
Council member Ted Brecheisen Jr., the lone dissenting voter, was against the plan for several reasons, most notably that by closing those streets, it moves the traffic to Elm and Dearborn streets.
"Everybody keeps going back to the safety issue," said Brecheisen. "At the same time you're making those two streets safer, you're making the other streets unsafe. It is an issue, but it's something the city should address.
"I have no doubt Baker will come through with this plan," he said. "For some of us who have been around here longer, we've seen them not do some things they said they were. I don't want to see this happen without some plans. I think when we do this with any other developers, we would want plans."
It was pointed out to Brecheisen again by Council member Amy Cleavinger and others, that Baker can't come up with plans until they know if the two roads are vacated.
"I'm not an old-timer, but in the 10 or so years I've been here I have never seen Baker not do what they said they were going to," said Council member Ken Wagner. "There is an anti-Baker sentiment out there and I don't understand it.
"If Dr. (Dan) Lambert and Bill McCollum show me plans for a parking lot and other items, I believe it," said Wagner. "I don't think our vote should ever be construed that we're giving Baker a free pass. I think they need a commitment from us."
It was also discussed that the planning commission had recommended that the streets not be vacated, but gated during events, a plan that Brecheisen favored. The council had asked Police Chief Mike McKenna for his thoughts on gating at past meetings and did again Monday.
"I feel, personally, that you should do one or the other. Either keep them open or close them. I don't think gating is a good option," said McKenna. "For emergency responders, it could cause them some delay if they didn't know whether the streets were open or closed."
Several members of the planning commission were on hand for the public hearing. They made their feelings clear on why they voted 5-2 for the gating option.
"I live in that neighborhood and I'm against vacating," said Larry Francq. "I can't comprehend closing three blocks of street. You're pushing the traffic off those streets to somewhere else.
"The other thing is, what is the time frame for this?" said Francq. "They don't have the money to do this. If we vacate these streets and they don't come up with the money, what happens? Right now, you're playing with ideas."
Danny McMillen, another member of the planning commission, was also concerned about the plans.
"I don't know how you can make any decision," said McMillen. "Baker didn't show us plans. You don't vacate streets until you see plans."
"We can't give the architect plans until we get approval for the streets," said McCollum, Baker vice president of university relations. "I agree with Chief McKenna that they should be closed or left open. I think the main thing is safety."
McCollum said the planned improvements in the area would happen within the next 18 to 24 months.
"I have no reason to believe that we won't fund this project," he said. "This is something for Baldwin, too."
Brecheisen then made his motion not to pass the ordinance, which died for a lack of a second.
"I am personally offended by the idea that Baker is a bad neighbor," said Council member Tony Brown. "I am offended because I work for Baker and I live on that side of town, so my opinion doesn't count."
Brown also took exception to Brecheisen's numbers showing 55,000 cars travel over those streets.
"How many is that per day?" said Brown. "It doesn't make sense when you do the math. I think people will figure out how to get around there. I think it's a good plan. I think it's something the entire community will benefit from."
Cleavinger then moved to approve the ordinance, which was seconded by Council member Nancy Brown. Brecheisen had one last plea.
"I think we have a planning commission that is to advise us and they advised not to do this," he said. "Most of the time, we listen to the planning commission."
Wagner, who was running the meeting in his role as council president, then took over.
"I don't think we should make this a referendum about what the planning commission does," said Wagner. "I respect all of them. We're all a part of this community."
He then asked for the vote on Fremont, which went 4-1 in favor. N. Brown then moved and T. Brown seconded for vacating the two blocks of Second Street.
"Two weeks ago, I had issues with vacating Second Street," Wagner said, "but I went to a couple of games and I'm convinced we need to do it. Now that we have lighted fields, it's a whole new ball game, if you'll pardon the pun."
That motion also passed by the same 4-1 margin.