Neighbors worry about plans for Portage Road. City says changes will come slowly and are needed.

Residents made their concerns known at a recent open house to review the proposal for the area.
Traffic on wide, five-lane Portage Road is too much, too fast, through the narrow corridor of businesses and homes between West Lake and Austin Lake. 

It's difficult and dangerous to turn onto the road from driveways and neighborhood streets, it's impossible to safely cross the street as a pedestrian. Sidewalks are inconsistent, missing for a long length of the West Lake side, and just a curb away from speeding traffic on the Austin Lake side. 

The road has become a thru-way for people commuting between Kalamazoo and Vicksburg and is basically a highway dominating the neighborhood. The mom-n-pop businesses, the local park, the beauty and nature of the lakes, the carefree lake life, are all suffering because of it. 

At Lakeview Park, the City of Portage held an open-air open-house for the Lake Center District Corridor Placemaking study Saturday, May 15. 

Scenario 3 of the study is what city officials are favoring. It involves replacing the current outer lanes of Portage Road with new sidewalks, a pedestrian/bike path, and landscaped buffer zones. The City Council will vote on the plan July 13.From what we heard -- and this is by no means an accurate poll, it's only what we heard from people who attended and were speaking up -- many of the residents agree with many of the above statements. 

But coming to an agreement on how to address the traffic situation is hard, especially if it involves big change, even if that change is to happen gradually over a 20-year span. 

The city has been working on the study since February 2020, has held public and online meetings, and put it all out there for local media and in the city newsletter The Portager. But rumors have apparently been flying around neighborhood groups about how people were going to get their property confiscated, about the city wanting quiet West Lake to be filled with partiers and jet skiers. 

The ambitious study does offer many more suggestions than just the placement of a few traffic lights. And residents had concerns.

"This is a placemaking study," City Manager Joseph La Margo emphasizes after speaking with residents at the park. It's a study that looks at the area's potentials with goals of helping local businesses and helping homeowners to keep their property values up, he says. 

"This is a diamond in the rough area," La Margo says, one the city hasn't invested in in decades.

A tale of two lakes

The placemaking study spans an area between East Osterhout Avenue and East Center Avenue, approximately 2.5 miles in length. It covers more than Portage Road. It's an ambitious 20+ year plan, to be implemented step-by-step. The study is by Farr Associates, led by nationally-known architect and urbanist Doug Farr

In the first year, city officials say, the changes will start with a traffic light at Forest Drive, followed by a traffic-calming road redesign, taking it down to two lanes with a center turn lane, and lowering its current 45 mph speed limit to 30 or 35 mph.

A man with cane attempts to cross the five lanes of Portage Road. The 2.5 mile study area between Center and Osterhout has four crosswalks across Portage, only one of those is in the business/residential-packed isthmus between Forest and Lakeview. Landscaped buffer zones -- seven-foot wide spaces of trees and greenery between traffic and non-motorized users -- will take up space where the current outer lanes are now. Also in that space will be a 10-foot-wide multi-use path for pedestrians and non-motorized users on the west side, and a new five-foot sidewalk on the east side. 

In the long-term implementation plan, five-to-10 years, the City hoped to focus on making the lakes an attraction to the area. What is now a drainage culvert under Portage Road, meant to regulate lake levels, was planned to become a new canal linking the lakes in the original draft of the study.

Also in the study was a proposal for a public dock on West Lake, near the Cove Lakeside Bistro. The draft's summary includes "placemaking activities, physical improvements, gateways, crosswalks, bike routes, boat docks, a lake-to-lake canal walk, and improved accessibility to, from, and throughout the District."

In a "retail strategy" section on page 25, a "boat and jet ski rental" is listed as possible new businesses in the area, among candy stores, food trucks, and a wine and cheese deli. 

The suggestion of boat rentals on West Lake threatened to derail the entire project. 

Portage Mayor Patricia Randall and Mayor Pro Tem Jim Pearson meet with residents at the open air open-house for the Lake Center District Corridor Placemaking study May 15.The day before the open house, council member, mayor pro tem and Austin Lake resident Jim Pearson put the lake situation in context: 

"Austin Lake is 1,100 acres, and West Lake is about 300 acres," he says.

Austin Lake has a lot of activity on its surface, including fishing, motorboats, jet-skiing, and regular water-skiing. "Austin Lake has a lot of traffic. West Lake, it's smaller, and the people there consider it a private lake because it's hard to even get into the lake." 

West Lake itself is state-owned. But, for residents, "they think of themselves as a private lake...They have a few public access sites but -- this is common in many lakes throughout the country -- they're kinda camouflaged with bushes or trees." 

Pearson says it's understandable that residents of West Lake don't want boats coming in from Austin Lake on a new canal, and they don't want non-residents renting craft to paddle or speed around just off of their docks.

He mentions fishing tournaments on Austin, where "they fish under our docks and boats, and we get hooks stuck in our boats... You live on a lake, and you gotta put up with whatever happens."

Pearson says the pushback led to that day's announcement from the City. The May 14th announcement reads that the canal plans would be moved to a "Future Potential Moves" (20+ years) section of the study, which represents projects considered during the study visioning process, but that are not currently included in the implementation plan and may be considered by future leadership." 

This was announced May 14. At the Lakeview Park open house the next day, it seemed that the announcement didn't get to all the residents.

City Manager La Margo faced a group angry about boat rentals.

"When we got that input, that's why we took it out of here," he tells them. The dock and boat rentals were placed there as an idea, a small part of the draft of the study, he tries to explain. "If, and it's a big if, if we were --"

A woman interrupts, "Well, my concern is, we have Lake Effect just down the road. They sell pot and stuff. So they stop there, get their pot, smoke it, and drive on our lake stoned on a jet ski. That's a big concern of mine."

La Margo says he doesn't want any jet ski rental. Maybe in the distant future, they could rent paddleboats? "I think that'd be great," he says.

Major goals behind the study are to "get more people shopping at the businesses, and patronizing the businesses," he tells the crowd. "What we are trying to do is, we're trying to make this (area) more beautiful, and more vibrant and safer, so people will want to come here to visit. We are wanting to attract more, different types of uses over here, but we also want to maintain the nostalgia... we love the mom 'n' pop stores and businesses." 

Focus on Portage Road

Just outside of the pavilion where the city was holding its open house, West Lake resident Michael Cartier was at his own table, with "Protect West Lake" lawn signs. 

He says the canal issue was about more than potential watercraft traffic on West Lake, that there were environmental issues, plus he thinks taxes will rise, and that the plans only benefit real estate speculators.

Portage Mayor Patricia Randall and Mayor Pro Tem Jim Pearson meet with residents at the open air open-house for the Lake Center District Corridor Placemaking study May 15.But, we ask, since the lake plans have been put off for sometime 20 years from now, how about the rest of the study, that focuses on Portage Road? Does Cartier like the way the road is now?

"I think there's a lot to be said for calming down the traffic on Portage Road," Cartier says. "I don't know how to do that, I'm not a traffic person. In general, the entire community of Portage would say, hey, we gotta make Portage Road safer. But how do you do that without taking people's property? How do you do that without taking away the quality of what we already have here?"

City officials say they're not looking to take anyone's property. It's unclear how residents and businesses felt when the city took the property to widen it in the first place.

We spoke with Mayor Patricia Randall at the open house. She doesn't know exactly when the road was widened. "I wasn't here at the time, I think it was in the '70s, late-'70s when it went from a county road to a city road, and so then we maintain it, we do plowing of it and all of that. So that's when they think some of the widening (happened)."

The area has been living with past decisions that are showing their age. "At some point, that culvert (where the proposed canal would go) is going to fail. That was an engineered thing in, what, '46? Or '56? A long time ago. At some point, we're going to have to address these issues." 

For Randall, doing nothing isn't an option 

Residents seem to agree that the Portage Road traffic is too much, too fast. But many of those speaking out for calmer traffic seem to be against the traffic calming methods outlined in the study.

Lake Center District resident Paul Blostein, (with his dog, Sugar) tells Mayor Randall that he's worried the city is trying to make the district a "downtown" of Portage. She explains that this is not the goal of the study.Randall points out other local communities, like the Winchell neighborhood in Kalamazoo, where Oakland Drive was narrowed: "That's a neighborhood road, it's three lanes, and they have said this (Winchell) neighborhood is more important than getting people from Portage to Kalamazoo. We are saying the same thing. We want to lift up this neighborhood. We want to create a sense of safety so that people can use the street, and the park, and (can accommodate) non-motorized traffic," she says.

"We don't really care how long it takes people from Vicksburg to get into Kalamazoo. It isn't a thruway, you're going through neighborhoods, you're going through (roads next to) houses. We will slow that traffic down, and having three lanes is the best way to do it."

Neighborhood resident Duane Hampton, listening, interrupts, "There are other ways to do it."

"Yeah?" Randall replies.

"Is a stoplight against the plan?"

"We are putting in another stoplight," Randall says. (It will be at Forest, installed as the first step at traffic calming recommended by the study.)

"Why not put in two?" Hampton asks.

Randall explains, "Stoplights are governed, a lot, by the state. We have to hit 15 warrants to get a stoplight. And one warrant is a fatality."

(A community needs "warrants" to prove to the state that a signal is warranted. There is a resistance to putting up lights as a means to control traffic unless warranted -- as this document from the Michigan State Police states, "Decades of research have shown that unwarranted signs and signals often have unintended consequences and create an opposite effect on driver behavior.... Traffic signals actually tend to increase the number of serious traffic crashes at intersections.")

"We can't put up stoplights wherever we want. Traffic has to flow," Randall says.

Hampton counters, "But you funnel all that traffic into three lanes, and then there's never a break, unless you have a light." 

"If we need another light, we'll get another light, but you have to go through the process," Randall says.

She points out that the hope is, commuters who are just passing through would take Sprinkle Road, or other alternate routes if they want to go faster than 40 mph.

"I live south of the isthmus, so I'm not taking alternative routes," Hampton says. "I've lived here 31 years. I've somehow survived this." He does add that his commute costs him time and causes aggravation and that turning left from the neighborhood streets to cross over all the lanes of traffic is difficult.

Randall says that "the studies have shown this, that three lanes move more cars through a traffic light than five lanes. And I know that doesn't make a lot of sense, but there's science behind this. We've had the traffic studies done years ago, we've had them updated, and we've had them projected into the future." 

She laughs and exclaims, "Give us a chance! Just give us a chance. We want to make this better. And if it isn't perfect, we can always make adjustments to it as we move forward."

Another resident, Paul Blostein, is worried that the city is trying to make the isthmus a "downtown" for Portage, he tells the mayor.

Randall replies that no, it's not to be a downtown. She just wants a safe area for people to enjoy. "We want to give this area the attention that it needs, that we've given to Centre Street, Westnedge, Oakland Drive, and Milham. We've spent no money here since it was turned over from a county to a city road. We want to make it better."

The area covered by the Lake Center District Corridor Placemaking study.Lakeview Park is within walkable distance for many residents, but even though West Lake neighborhood street Lakeview Drive ends across Portage Road from the park, there is no safe pedestrian crossing. (In fact, there are no formal crosswalks near the isthmus except for one at Bacon Avenue and Lake Center Elementary .7 miles to the south of Lakeview Drive, and a crossing island near McClish Court nearly a half-mile walk north. On the West Lake side one would be walking to these crossings without a sidewalk.)

Randall asks, to get to the park, "you have to put your kids in the car, and dog, and drive across the street?"

Another resident arrives to tell the mayor that he heard the city "was taking houses out."

Randall says with some exasperation, "It isn't even in our plan. We weren't going to use eminent domain. We are not raising property taxes. We're not having a jet ski rental. I don't know what vein of story you've heard -- "

The man says, "We've heard a lot."

"-- but it's just trying to throw my steering committee under the bus. And they've worked 14-16 months on this. They live on the lake, they have a vested interest in this," she continues.

Portage Road looking north near Forest Drive. A traffic signal at Forrest and Portage is "one of the first action steps we would like to complete," City Manager Joseph La Margo says. It would be placed within 2021-2022.Later, Randall tells Second Wave that after a pre-COVID event at the park, she saw families try to cross Portage to the West Lake side. 

"And there were so many mothers with baby strollers, and kids on trikes -- nobody would flippin' stop and let them cross! I felt like, I had to go out there and throw myself in traffic. I just sat there and thought, what would make you stop? If I see a mom with more than one kid, it's my responsibility as a car driver to try to show some empathy or some smart way to do it."

She continues, "Bikers pay taxes. Walkers pay taxes, you know? We live in a community. If you want to drive fast, go to a community that's more rural. And put up with the deer." 

Placemaking, not property-taking

Eventually, the crowd speaking to city manager La Margo dissipates. We ask him about the canal plans.

"These are just ideas," he says about potential boat rentals. In earlier discussions, residents "weren't opposed to paddle boats," La Margo says. But now, in light of the neighbors' opposition, considerations of the canal and West Lake boat dock have been pushed to sometime over 20 years from now.

The first changes, if the plan is implemented, will be to Portage Road. 

He points out the three scenarios of change that came out of the study. The first keeps the current five lanes of traffic, and adds more sidewalks. The second keeps five lanes, and adds new sidewalks and buffer zones.

Both require the city to encroach on property, especially Scenario #2: "Then we're going to have to take property, we're going to have to require easements, which can be very expensive," he says. 

The favored Scenario #3 shrinks Portage Road to three lanes -- it makes use of existing road space, not property. "That's why we're doing this one, because we're not taking anything," he says.

La Margo says that they may need some driveway alignments, and they'll work with business owners on those. Otherwise, Scenario #3 "allows us to do this project without spending a lot of money, without encroaching on any more property, and making it safe."

The city is also planning on helping businesses with facade and other improvements, he says.

La Margo emphasizes that these plans are not set in stone, that future city councils will be able to change plans as needed.

Communities change over decades. "Who would've thought, 50 years ago, that they'd be building these $800,000 homes on West Lake, as opposed to small cottages?" La Margo says.

Some of the isthmus' businesses have been family-owned since Upjohn's best-sellers were Kaopectate and Unicap vitamins. In 2021, Pfizer is making a vaccine to help to end a global pandemic in the same factory. Stryker and FedEx have come along to be major Portage employers.

La Margo says he hopes the big companies' employees will stay in Portage. "You want to have a place where you can work -- and it's kind of a cliche -- work, live and play, but it's true. We want to give people the opportunity that if they work in Portage, they can live in Portage." 

Portage City Council's vote on the Lake Center Plan is set for July 13.

Photos by Mark Wedel.

 

Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.