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U of L Prof. Gilderbloom slams Mayor Fischer for ignoring his research

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John Gilderbloom: Mayor's office "belittled" efforts

John Gilderbloom: Mayor’s office “belittled” efforts

Earlier this week we posted a story about how Louisville converted a pair of one-way streets into two-way streets, which had mostly beneficial effects: fewer accidents, increased property values, and reduced crime.

These results were measured by a team led by Dr. John Gilderbloom, who directs the University of Louisville’s Center for Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods. In 2013 he also won the Presidential Medal for Distinguished Faculty Award for Research.

We asked Gilderbloom a few logical follow-ups via email, including: What does the city make of his research? Is the city planning on using his research? And does he know of any additional two-way street conversions to come?

To our surprise, Gilderbloom fired back what sounds like a salvo in an ongoing (but until now hidden) feud between the city and the main urban planning research body at U of L. Or at least it’s a feud from Gilderbloom’s point of view.

This is noteworthy in a city that often seems to bend over backwards to cater to U of L’s needs, especially when those needs pertain to its basketball team. But, according to Gilderbloom, his team has not benefited; in fact, he claims the city is thumbing its nose at it.

We showed Gilderbloom’s email to Chris Poynter, spokesman for Mayor Greg Fischer. This was his response: “We all know that two-way streets can be effective in reducing crime, improving business and commerce and improving traffic flow and there is considerable data surrounding this and a number of studies that have been done on this issue. That’s why the city has already converted some streets to two-way with plans to do even more.” The mayor’s spokesman declined to specifically address Gilderbloom’s harsh criticisms and pointed accusations.

Below is our email with Gilderbloom (with grammatical corrections for clarity).

IL: Did the city say anything to you about your research? If so, what?

JG: Our team, (http://sun.louisville.edu) has published more current academic articles on Louisville’s  housing, transportation and community development than anybody else–yet the Mayor’s office has been hostile, threatening and outraged by this research. We had a great working relationship with the previous two mayors who would regularly work with us–co-teaching classes and writing articles for the national press like The Washington Post. So much for U of L being a beacon of light or letting knowledge serve the city. I was even told that the Mayor’s office has asked consultants to “make pledges”  that they would not work with U of L or with Center for Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods. We are not invited to compete for grants, and in one instance where we were the winners of a competition the Mayor said no. Starting with the disastrous Vision Louisville Part I, which  the Mayor has spent $2.5 million dollars on outside consultants from Oslo to San Francisco, Atlanta to St. Louis; and has worked with three different universities outside of  Louisville. The University of Louisville has not been awarded any grants, including in competitions where we were the only ones who competed.

Some of this research by consultants is simply naive and garbage–it would never get published in an academic journal. We contacted, for example, the San Francisco/Atlanta consultants that were getting a $720,000 contract to fix Louisville speedways downtown and offered our data and they said no. The data included the research we have already published, interviews with 1,940 Louisville residents on transportation options, a data set with over 300 variables-per-census-tract in Louisville’s 170 neighborhoods, along with additional professional surveys. The Mayor’s staff along with the consultants have said: Thank you for your offer but we are not interested in your data or working with you and your U of L students. In fact, the Mayor’s office had a grant to study “active transportation” and they brought down Portland State University several weeks ago to lead workshops on how to renew and rebuild South of Broadway. We were not invited.

We went to a public session on the conversion of Breckinridge and the City officials said that our research came from unreliable sources (apparently the Property Valuation Administration, police crime reports, and community surveys are unreliable) and conversion to two-way would never be considered on the multi-lane one way streets that were killing downtown neighborhoods like Germantown, Smoketown and Old Louisville. U of L officials have complained to the Mayor’s office but it went nowhere. I can’t even get the new head of Economic Development to return phone calls despite working with developers who have invested over $50 million dollars in west Louisville, or the fact that I worked with several national developers who have invested $2.5 billion dollars in new urbanist/affordable housing developments consisting of 16,000 housing units and commercial developments around the country who want to build in west Louisville … but they want calm streets, conversion to two-way, trees planted to make it more walkable, community gardens and so on. This kind of new urbanist investment would grow these neighborhoods and bring in a larger tax base.

Do you know if they’re planning to use your research?

They will never use this research; they will instead belittle our efforts. Our planning program is the only academic program ranked in the top 25 nationally. We are great but our graduate students need research dollars; yet the money goes to students at Portland State University, Georgia Tech and the University of Kentucky–as well as students in Oslo. I find that outrageous. Our mission is to seek best practices; the Mayor’s view seems stuck, not to make changes that will help Louisville compete against green cities on the West Coast, or Chicago or Indy or Nashville.

Are there any additional plans to make more two way streets in Louisville based on your research?

Who knows? I know that the Mayor’s staff at a public meeting told me that the speedy multi-lane one-ways moving through struggling neighborhoods in west Louisville, Portland, Old Louisville and Smoketown will not be changed. The traffic engineer for the City said: “This is not part of the discussion.” I am glad to hear that NuLu will get improved, calm streets. I think there might be a few more streets downtown but it’s got to extend into nearby neighborhoods. Louisville has the potential to be one of the greatest comeback cities in the nation; yet the Mayor’s staff is driving away from this opportunity and acting like it’s the 1950s.

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