When a reckless driver last May crashed into a decorative planter at the end of a residential street in Mission, he did a lot more than dislodge some bricks into the roadway.
The errant motorist sparked an impassioned debate over how best to preserve quiet, safe streets and neighborhood tranquility not far from Shawnee Mission Parkway.
City officials say they can’t just fix the broken planter, which has been there for more than 25 years, because it doesn’t meet the latest national highway safety standards. The city has floated the idea of removing this planter and five others that currently create dead-end barriers for 61st Terrace, 62nd Street and 62nd Terrace off Hodges Drive.
But nearby residents are fiercely opposed and have turned out in force at town meetings and petitioned to try to save the planters. Residents say that, while the planters may not technically meet traffic standards, they help beautify the neighborhood and improve public safety by slowing drivers down and preventing cut-through traffic from Shawnee Mission Parkway.
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“We like the friendly nature of these,” said Susie Genova, who has lived on Hodges Drive for more than 30 years and sees the planters as an effective traffic calming device. “You can walk your dog through, you can stroll your stroller through, but not cars.”
Genova said the city used to block the streets with guardrails but replaced those unsightly metal features with the six planters at the neighborhood’s request in the early 1990s.
Until one of the planters was damaged by a motorist last spring at 61st Terrace, these fixtures weren’t on the city’s radar. Genova said she and other neighbors have filled them with flowers in the summertime and have spent thousands of dollars maintaining them over the years.
Sara and James Newell, who live on West 62nd Street, were among more than 80 people who signed petitions urging the city to preserve the planters as no-outlet barriers limiting traffic on their streets.
“The planter boxes were a selling point when we purchased our home 11 years ago,” the Newells wrote on their petition. They said their three children, ages 11, 8 and 6, can safely walk to school and ride their bikes on the quiet streets in part because of the planters.
“Removing the planters opens all of the neighborhoods to increased traffic,” they wrote. “This creates a serious safety issue.”
Joanne Stang, who has lived at Hodges Drive and 61st Terrace for 42 years, agreed.
“It’s great living on a dead-end,” Stang said. “It would be a real shame to change a great neighborhood into a neighborhood not so safe.”
City officials say the crash in May highlighted the fact that the planters themselves are a safety hazard. They also raise concerns that the planters block fire trucks, ambulances and snowplows from entering the streets from Hodges Drive.
Still, City Administrator Laura Smith recognizes that simply removing the planters is not acceptable for constituents.
“We obviously touched on a very emotional subject for the neighborhood,” Smith told the Mission City Council at a Jan. 9 meeting.
She promised to work with area residents on other alternatives, although she said it’s premature to discuss what those options might be or potential costs.
At the Jan. 9 meeting, Dave Mennenga, a civil engineering consultant with GBA (George Butler Associates), told the council and residents that the planters aren’t well lit or easily visible at night and remain a crash risk.
He said he’s worked with neighborhoods throughout the metro area on traffic calming approaches and he can suggest types of guardrails or more aesthetically pleasing treatments that could allow better emergency-vehicle access without opening the roads to public traffic.
Police Chief Ben Hadley said he lives on a cul-de-sac in Shawnee, and he sympathized with residents’ desire that their streets remain dead ends. He said the planters aren’t a problem for police because their cars can simply drive around them, onto people’s yards if necessary, in dealing with emergencies or pursuing suspects.
But he said that’s not the case for fire trucks.
“If your house is on fire...it will take the fire department longer to get to your house,” Hadley said, although he acknowledged that’s not been a problem in the 21 years he’s been with the city.
Genova and other neighborhood representatives volunteered to work with the city on possible alternatives, as long as they retain some type of street barrier. Smith pledged to give the city council an update in March.
But Genova also questioned whether all this is really necessary. She’s seen examples where planters are used in other cities as attractive and affordable traffic calming devices, including serving as barriers for bicycle lanes in busy streets with moving traffic.
“I think it’s not a smart thing to do financially to spend the money to take them down and rebuild another thing,” she said. “I don’t appreciate my tax dollars being spent like that.”