This could be a decisive year for Kalamazoo’s urban trails. That’s because the city is likely to vote on proposals to extend the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail through the city’s downtown. But while extending the trail is a popular idea, it may prove tough to find a path everyone can agree on.
Deputy City Manager Jeff Chamberlain sits at a table in his office at city hall. He points to lines traced over a map of downtown Kalamazoo, which show the path of the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail.
Currently the KRVT, as the trail is known, extends out in both directions from downtown. To the west it connects with another trail that runs all the way to Lake Michigan. To the east it extends north to D Avenue and east into Comstock Township – and someday could connect to Battle Creek. The only place it doesn’t run is through downtown Kalamazoo.
“If you look at this kind of as a bigger trail system, we have this missing piece right in the middle and we really need to get that – those two pieces connected. And so that’s pretty much our top priority,” Chamberlain says.
That’s why Kalamazoo County had an engineer draw up a handful of proposals for an extension. One option would connect the two ends just north of the railroad tracks along Willard Street.
“That’s a straight shot connector between the two pieces that currently do not connect,” Chamberlain says.
“And then there’s another idea to bring if you would a business loop, down through the downtown so that if you’re on the trail way and you want to come downtown and get some coffee, or go to the museum that there’s a clearly marked way to do that.”
In theory, just about everyone supports a downtown trail – from those who would like to traverse KRVT in one shot to downtown business owners who could benefit from an influx of visitors. But in practice, the proposed routes through downtown have run into some hurdles.
“Real estate is kind of narrow and tight, the roads are narrow, we have a lot of on-street parking, we have a lot of competing needs in the downtown area,” Chamberlain says.
One group with an interest in the project is Downtown Kalamazoo Incorporated or DKI, the nonprofit entity that runs parking operations.
In December, DKI President Steve Deisler sent a letter to County Parks Commission Director David Rachowicz. It outlined DKI’s opposition to one of the proposals for a downtown loop. That option, running the trail along Water Street, would eliminate 26 parking spots and $10,000 in annual parking revenue.
DKI’s Brian Persky declined to comment for this story except to say the organization does support the trail project. But county parks commissioner Matt Lechel sees DKI’s official stance as short-sighted.
“The lost revenue I don’t want to diminish,” he says. "I know DKI is in a tough position as an institution losing some funding, and so I think that’s a fair point.
“I also don’t think $10,000 should hold our community back from this tremendous asset, so we’ll have to find a balance I suppose.”
As for the impact on motorists, he says, “we lose 26 parking spots, but what if we bring a few thousand extra people into downtown? Seems like a pretty fair trade-off and it helps our parking problem.”
DKI did propose placing “sharrows” along Water Street instead of extending the trail. Sharrows are road markings reminding motorists they must share the road with bike riders. But most other stakeholders don’t share DKI’s enthusiasm. For one thing, Lechel says, sharrows are only of use to cyclists – and seasoned ones at that.
“I think a target user for a trail, I think of a young family, maybe someone pushing a stroller, an elderly couple who’s walking, certainly our really diverse and strong running community here in Kalamazoo would be someone who would use the trail actively, and beginning bike riders, folks who maybe don’t feel comfortable riding on a roadway,” he says.
DKI parking committee member John Schmitt cast one of the votes against the Water Street connection. But he says his objections have nothing to do with lost parking spots or revenue.
Instead, he’s worried about safety. He says he’s seen “too many close calls” at existing trail crossings at Gull and Patterson roads.
“My feeling is as a cyclist, it’s much safer to be in the road, because then motorists can see you. When you’re on a trail or on a sidewalk, motorists don’t really – the may see you but they don’t register that you’re moving along the trail,” he says.
Schmitt adds that since the vote, he’s decided he may have been considering the issue too narrowly.
“I was coming at it from one particular point of view, that being a road rider. And as has been brought up in various discussions, you know that really pedestrians, families with young children and that, from that point of view I can see the rationale for having a dedicated trail,” he says.
But he says he’s still concerned that extending the trail along Water Street could pose a risk to its users.
Chamberlain says the city doesn’t see sharrows as a workable solution in this case. But he says the city is considering other options besides extending the offroad trail.
“There’s lots of different ways to handle bike and pedestrian traffic in a downtown area, from really innovative things like bike lanes where they’re actually between the curb and the parking lane, so you might have the sidewalk, a bike lane then parking, and then traffic,” he says.
“Other cities have used things that actually have a divider along the bike lane so you’re actually physically divided away from the traffic, counter flow bike lanes where they actually go against the flow of traffic.”
Chamberlain says it’s important for people to realize the city has the final authority to make the decision – not DKI, which holds its parking committee meetings in private, a practice Lechel and others have questioned. He also says no decisions have been made yet and adds that the city plans to launch a “public dialog process” to foster discussion.
“We don’t have any meetings set yet,” he says. “That’s actually something that we want to work with the KRVT folks to help us put together that process.
“But at the same time though we want to make sure this keeps moving forward. We’re not looking at a multi-year dialog.”
If the city does approve a trail extension, it will be up to the Parks Foundation, which sponsors the KRVT, to raise the money to build it. President Jerry Albertson says potential donors have already expressed their interest.