“Finally,” Richard Logan exclaimed when I told him the surprising news. Xcel Energy had moved an electric pole on Excelsior Boulevard that had long-made the sidewalk inaccessible. Logan, the West Maka Ska Neighborhood Council safety lead, had been complaining to the City of Minneapolis, Hennepin County, and Xcel Energy about this very sidewalk since 2015.
Because this pole was in the middle of the sidewalk and leaned at a 10-degree angle, it was nearly impossible for an individual with a wheelchair, power chair, or stroller to pass by. And that wasn’t the only problem pole on that stretch of road.
Further east, on the corner of Excelsior Boulevard and List Place, Xcel Energy had two electrical poles placed next to each other on the sidewalk, creating another narrow space to navigate. These poles have now been removed by Xcel Energy.
Watching a person in a wheelchair try to navigate these poles is why Logan got involved with advocating for accessible sidewalks in the first place.
“In the wintertime, years ago, seeing a person in a wheelchair, having to go out onto the pavement of Excelsior Boulevard to get past some of the barriers we're talking about,” Logan said. “She had the little red flag. But that was just terrifying.”
Michael Sack, founder of Minneapolis Sidewalk Repair Hunters, tested the accessibility of the sidewalk with Southwest Voices in August. Even though he successfully maneuvered his power chair through the double-pole barrier by the curb ramp as if it were an obstacle course (which is not the point of a sidewalk), this pole was impossible for Sack to get around.
“I feel that [this] particular sidewalk needs even more accessibility improvements, such as widening the sidewalk and installing more of a barrier between vehicles and pedestrians,” Sack said. “This is something good for the community, and their participation was key to making this pathway accessible to all.”
With the latest changes from Xcel Energy, this sidewalk is becoming more accessible. But how did West Bde Maka Ska end up with non-ADA-compliant sidewalks in the first place?
“Both poles date to 1958, likely well before the sidewalk went in around them,” Theo Keith of Xcel Energy’s media relations department said.
On our sidewalk accessibility outing in August, Logan pointed out whether past sidewalk design work had considered accessibility, given the poles’ locations. For example, Logan pointed out that a sidewalk could be extended onto a garden plot when a pole made the sidewalk non-ADA-compliant.
So, is accessible sidewalk maintenance a City of Minneapolis or Hennepin County issue? And where did all those complaints about this sidewalk stretch go? How could such obvious obstructions be left to the wayside for so long?
Logan has been reporting these specific poles as an obstruction for about eight years now. According to the Hennepin County ADA Transition Plan map, both Hennepin County and the City of Minneapolis have had this obstruction on their radar since July 2015.
First, it’s important to know whether the road is a county or city road. In this case, Excelsior Boulevard is a Hennepin County road. But when I asked Hennepin County about this sidewalk stretch, I learned that Excelsior Boulevard isn't the only problem area.
“A few key factors are there being thousands of obstructions on sidewalks throughout the county with limited funding, Hennepin County having sidewalk maintenance agreements with cities, and right of way space often being very tight so necessary objects like utility/light poles, hydrants, signs, and bus benches/shelters needing to be placed in the sidewalk,” Derek Sunstrom, ADA Implementation Engineer for Hennepin County Public Works, said.
In other words, there is so much to shove onto our sidewalks, it’s hard enough keeping them ADA-compliant as is. Ok, but, we can do better than pave a sidewalk with an electrical pole down the center, right?
“Existing obstructions in the sidewalk currently get addressed when doing full roadway reconstructions,” Sunstrom said. “I hope cities, utility companies, and the county continue to look for ways to work together to address the type of item you are bringing up without the need to wait for a full roadway reconstruction project.”
So, if you have been eyeing a sidewalk obstruction, there is a good chance it will be fixed during a full road construction, according to Sunstrom. For example, this year's road construction on 50th Street is addressing ADA-compliant sidewalk ramps.
According to Hennepin County, sidewalk obstruction issues are a City-level concern, even on county roads– which Excelsior Boulevard is.
“When approached by a city on concerns within the county right of way, county staff make an effort to collaborate on decisions and next steps,” Colin Cox of Hennepin County communications said.
City spokesperson Sarah McKenzie recommended reviewing the “Jurisdictional Responsibilities for Building and Repairing ADA Infrastructure” section of the Minneapolis ADA Transition Plan for Public Works. “There are many public pieces of infrastructure in the City of Minneapolis that are built, owned, and repaired by other agencies,” the document reads. “Generally, the higher agency assumes responsibility for the street, including sidewalks, crosswalks, traffic signals and pedestrian curb ramp,” which suggests that Hennepin County is responsible for sidewalk accessibility.
In our reporting, the City of Minneapolis and Hennepin County couldn't agree on who was responsible for keeping the sidewalk accessible, but that turned out to be a moot point. Xcel Energy was the responsible party in this situation.
“Removing the old poles will allow neighbors using wheelchairs or strollers to pass by more easily while we continue to provide reliable electric service for our customers,” Keith, with Xcel Energy, said.
In reporting for this story, our queries to Xcel Energy were confirmed to speed up response times to the sidewalk complaints significantly. Xcel Energy first informed Southwest Voices the poles on Excelsior Boulevard were planned to be removed by November, but within 72 hours of receiving this information, the poles in question had been moved or removed.
“After your question, we were able to speed up the timeline to remove the old poles,” Keith said in response to our query on the sped-up timeline.
Logan and Sack got connected to fight for a better sidewalk on Excelsior Boulevard thanks to Sack's organization, Minneapolis Sidewalk Repair Hunters.
Sack started Minneapolis Sidewalk Repair Hunters in 2021. As someone who uses a powerchair to get around, he became fed up with a sidewalk obstruction in his own South Minneapolis neighborhood. He contacted his city councilmember at the time, Jeremy Schroeder, and within a few weeks it was repaired.
The purpose of Minneapolis Sidewalk Repair Hunters is to help people understand the dangers of broken sidewalks, and empower them to report the hazards.
According to the Minneapolis Sidewalk Repair Hunters website, “Repairing sidewalks and curb cuts is extremely important to improve the accessibility of Minneapolis. Everybody — wheelchair users, strollers, bikers, pedestrians — should have equal and accessible access to pathways. Fixing inadequate sidewalks is key to helping the city grow into what it should be — a city with plentiful access and possibilities.”
Sack runs a Facebook group of the same name, where people share their experiences with uneven sidewalks, broken curb ramps, or obstructed pedestrian infrastructure that they come across throughout Minneapolis. Sack then compiles a list about every other month of all the inaccessible sidewalks, and reports them en masse to the city. Logan has been very active in the Facebook group the past few months, repeatedly sharing his concerns with Excelsior Blvd.
The difficulty in addressing sidewalk accessibility can be felt on the other side of Minneapolis, where Sack said it recently took two months for the city to fix a sidewalk by his house on 54th Street near Lake Nokomis. He had been filing reports to the City repeatedly. He said it finally got fixed the day after he contacted his councilmember, Emily Koski. However, he noticed it seemed to have correlated with fixing an underground electrical issue and may not have been related to his reports.
Logan shared his frustration with the slow pace of response at the City-level as well.
“After years of doing this, I have yet to find a city official who really understands the specific geographic issues and the topography of this neighborhood,” Logan said. He brought up Excelsior Boulevard's sidewalk to Councilmember Linea Palmisano many times but no action was taken.