There's no question that Perham has many unique characteristics. One of those - the city's extra-wide streets - is creating a topic of debate among city officials.
At its special meeting on Wednesday, the Perham City Council heard the results of a survey examining potential changes to Perham's unusually wide streets, commissioned using a Statewide Health Improvement Plant (SHIP) grant.
Perham chose one street and one intersection to be examined, and chose Community Growth Institute (CGI) out of Baxter, Minn., to perform the study. $5,000 was available for the study, all of which needed to be spent by June 30 to fulfill the terms of the grant.
The survey was simply for informational purposes, and the city is under no obligation to take action.
Charles Marohn from CGI presented the results to the council.
'Something has been lost'
The wide streets of Perham, Marohn said in his presentation, were designed to create a large, public space, which was a common development pattern prior to World War II.
"It was a public realm that people shared with each other," he said. "It was a place where people wanted to be."
Perham's original street and neighborhood design was walkable, and a person could easily walk from one side of town to another in a short period of time.
After World War II, cars became more common and the goal of city designs shifted from walkability to driveability.
"This shift caused some subtle changes in the framework of the community that negated many of the advantages of the wide streets of Perham," Marohn wrote in his report.
For example, as cars became more common on Perham's streets, the speed of the traffic also increased. This, Marohn said, discourages pedestrians.
Reinforcing this trend, Perham's extra-wide streets also encourage higher speeds of traffic, Marohn said, giving pedestrians further reason to avoid walking.
"In the short-term, people stop using the public realm for anything but automobile travel," Marohn wrote. "This impacts pedestrian activity and biking, of course, but it also impacts the spontaneous gatherings, both formal and informal, that used to occupy this space. Something has been lost in Perham's civic life."
Cost of wide streets
Much of Perham's post-World War II developments, such as the newer, suburban developments on the outskirts of town, have also applied the 'wide streets' design for no specific purpose, and this is putting the city in a difficult financial position, Marohn said.
According to Perham City Manager Kelcey Klemm, wider streets cost more to build and to maintain than narrower streets in the long run.
"When you're doing seal-coating on a street, a 36-foot-wide street is a lot cheaper than a 50-foot-wide street," he said.
The cost of plowing a wide street during winter also adds up over time, Klemm said.
"By using the wide streets," Marohn wrote, "the city is simply spending more money - a considerable amount - and not getting anything productive for it."
Because of Perham's wide streets, he said, "the underlying tax base does not generate enough revenue to support the maintenance of infrastructure."
In the survey, Marohn looked at ways that the city could change or repurpose the wide streets to increase the city's Return on Investment (ROI).
One way to do this, he wrote, is to increase the level of private sector investment in area neighborhoods. By creating convenient biking and walking routes in the city, Perham could do just that.
Marohn looked at the intersection of Main Street and First Ave S, and a full-length street section of Third Ave SW as an example of Perham's wide streets. For both cases, he provided recommendations on how the city could encourage pedestrian and bicycle use.
For Third Ave, Marohn provided three different scenarios. First, he said, the city could stripe for a separate bike lane in the street, between the parking lane and the driving lanes, while maintaining the existing curb line.
A second scenario would be to build a center median with vegetation and to provide for stormwater management. Bikes would share the driving lane, and the curb line would maintain its existing line.
The third scenario that Marohn proposed would be to move the curb line in to the street, which would reduce pavement surface. The sidewalk would then be an additional two feet wider for shared pedestrians/bicycles.
Marohn estimated that the third scenario would cost $54 per foot to implement, compared with $9 per foot for the first scenario and $15 per foot for the second scenario.
Marohn took the city council out to Third Street near Calvary Lutheran Church to provide a visual example of what he meant.
"Public spaces have become places that repel people," he told the council. "In the front of houses you have electric boxes, garages and cars. Personal things are behind the houses, and there's no reason for people to gather in the street. It creates a pattern of development people do not respond to."
Councilman Fred Lehmkuhl asked Marohn if he could give an example of a city in Minnesota that the council could visit to get a better idea of an ideal design.
"I would say that city was Perham in 1920," Marohn said. "It worked because it was self-financed."
Marohn also provided two different scenarios for making intersections more pedestrian-friendly.
First, the city could stripe for dedicated bike lines, while maintaining existing infrastructure. Marohn estimated that it would cost the city $3,000 to restripe the intersection.
Or, the city could reconstruct the entire intersection with protected bike crossing areas. A raised concrete median would keep cars separated from cyclists during the turning movement. This reconstruction would cost roughly $20,000, Marohn estimated.
Given the possible scenarios for intersections or streets, and Perham's larger financial situation, Marohn proposed several recommendations. These included creating new road and street standards and installing bike lanes on avenues (the less-expensive striping scenario described for Third Ave).
Slower speeds in town would encourage more pedestrian activity, and striping a bike lane is a "low risk, (potentially high-reward) experiment worth undertaking," he wrote.
"You have the DNA and the skeleton of something good here," he told the council. "We just need to rethink things. We need to rethink our neighborhoods. It's more than just a bike path."
The complete survey report is available on the City of Perham website under 'announcements.'
Although the city is under no obligation to take action or to implement any of Marohn's suggestions, Klemm said that the discussion would likely continue.
"It's a hot debate," he said, "because people generally like our wider streets here. It has benefits. Everyone has a different opinion on it."
In the end, though, "it'll come down to cost."