Friday, March 18, 2011

EYE CANDID: Fred Schmidt for 1st Ward Columbia City Council

The "I" stands for Internet in these candid candidate profiles
COLUMBIA, 3/18/11  (Beat Byte) --  A conversation about Fred Schmidt the other day kicked off with a doozy:  "Fred for First," read the yard sign on Broadway, far enough away that the full name below wasn't clear.   "I knew Fred Parry was going to run some day," said the person in the car beside me.  "How come the Chamber didn't endorse him?"  
Which raises the question:  Who will voters think they're voting for April 5?   Probably the only thing Columbia City Council candidate Fred Schmidt has in common with his First Ward neighbor -- Parry lives just a block away -- is a mutual affection for riding bikes on the Katy Trail.  
In fact, fans of PedNet, low-car lifestyles, trails, and GetAbout Columbia's mission should have no better friend than Schmidt at City Hall.
"I’m very excited," said Fred Schmidt of the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Commission. "We’re very excited they were kind of able to fast-track this," the $22 million in federal highway funds to build a comprehensive network of trails throughout Columbia that became GetAbout Columbia in 2005. 
Schmidt had returned home from New York to be closer to family, and plunged into the Great Columbia Cycling Initiative, a controversial, largely unfulfilled vision with broad appeal, but little real action in the halls of power. 
"Fred Schmidt rides everywhere on his bike," the Columbia Daily Tribune noted.  "He rides to the store. He rides to work. He even rides for pleasure in Columbia parks."  Lack of supportive infrastructure, however, left Schmidt "searching for somewhere to tether his two-wheeler," a metaphor for virtually anyone who takes a walk or rides a bike in Columbia.
The snows have left even bigger gaps in Columbia's streets and sidewalks, sorry affairs in too many places that too often lead pedestrians to dead ends, like the forbidding crossing at Providence and Broadway that literally screams STAY AWAY at the foot or cycle bound.  
 And in an odd nod to midwestern frugality, only two crosswalks are painted at many 4-corner intersections, screaming something else:  Pedestrians in Columbia are a low priority. 
Virtually the entire discussion downtown and at City Hall has been about cars:  how to house them in oversized parking garages; how to increase parking fines; how to make sure more cars can get downtown.  Ironically, every member of the Columbia City Council -- regardless their claimed low-car predilections -- has gone along with the car-motivated discussion, from approving the garages to increasing the fines. 

Perhaps Schmidt, if elected, would try to move City Hall in a different direction. 
"It’s a muggy morning in May, and Fred Schmidt and Corri Flaker are waiting for cars to pass through the intersection at Clinkscales Road and Worley Street.  Wearing bright yellow vests and holding a tape measure and bound copies of aerial photos of other Columbia intersections, the team looks slightly out of place amid the bustle of motorized activity."
Schmidt and Flaker were measuring the width of Clinkscales Street to figure out if a 4- to 6-foot-wide bicycle lane could become part of the street. 
Both "avid bicyclists," they were "foot soldiers on the front lines of a battle some in Columbia are hoping will reduce residents’ dependence on cars, motorcycles and any other vehicles with an internal combustion engine," the Tribune reported.
But the $22 million Congressionally-authorized grant Schmidt was soldiering for hasn't played out as sold:  "To prepare and build an interconnected system of trails, walkways, bicycle paths and other infrastructure improvements designed to foster non-motorized traffic."
About the grant five years ago, GetAbout Columbia director Ted Curtis said, "We’re still in the paper world."  It's mostly remained there ever since. 
Though Council members long ago approved miles of new bicycle lanes, trails, sidewalks and so-called "pedways" — wider sidewalks for bike riders and wheelchairs — far too much of GetAbout's grant money has been spent on so-called "soft items" like staff salaries, consultants, office rent, and several almost infamous multimillion dollar contracts with Vangel and Associates to market a concept most Columbians already understand:  that walking and cycling are good ideas.   
Instead of the grant's promised nineteen miles of new trails; sixty-six miles of new bicycle lanes; nine miles of new sidewalks and pedways; and two pedestrian bridges, Columbia has a new entrance to the MKT trail on Providence and Stewart Roads, a few additional trails, and faded bike path insignias called "sharrows" painted on roadsides never altered to accomodate bike traffic. 
As policy coordinator with the PedNet Coalition, Schmidt commented on the problem of motor vehicle/bicycle collisions, urging better education.  Inadequate infrastructure, however, contributes as much if not more to insufficient safety. 
In a different role as president of the Benton-Stephens neighborhood association, Schmidt tackled two high-profile controversies
An adult bookstore called "Passions" opened on Old 63 North in 2008, riling neighbors concerned that too many sex shops were "clustering" in the Benton-Stephens area, around Stephens College and Benton Elementary School.  Passions' bright red neon sign elicited neighborhood groans. 
"It’s terrible signage; you wish there was a sign ordinance you could get them on because it’s that bright-red neon, but I’m not sure if there’s any law you could use," Schmidt told the Trib.  "While there’s a lot of grumbling about it, I’m sorry to say there are probably also neighborhood patrons."
That same year, the Benton-Stephens neighborhood association squared off against Country Club Estates neighbors over the Landmark Hospital on Old 63, a 32,000-square-foot healthcare facility Country Club residents mightily opposed.
"It will adjoin residential land, and it is a 24/7, 365-day-a-year hospital," said Country Club resident and former City Councilman Bob Hutton. "Potentially an office use that is just 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. would certainly be a lot more reasonable than a hospital."

Benton-Stephens neighbors -- across the highway -- disagreed. 
"Fred Schmidt, president of the Benton-Stephens group, said he didn’t think the hospital would adversely affect traffic or the character of the neighborhood," the Trib reported three years ago
"A number of people felt this is really the best thing that could happen on this property," Schmidt said. "I know it is something that the proponents and the opponents see the same thing, and then come to different conclusions.  But personally, I think it might be just the thing that sets the right tone for that area and keeps it from becoming more commercial.   It may be the thing that fits better with residential than anything else they can hope for."

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