Ben Garland moved to Duluth a couple years ago, but he left his wheels behind.
"I think that because of that, he offers a certain perspective that not all of us have," said Dave Zbaracki, Garland's friend.
Garland first learned of plans to reconstruct Superior Street when he joined a local planning initiative called Imagine Duluth 2035, and as he dug into the plans, he was struck by a potentially missed opportunity to improve the pedestrian experience in the heart of the city's downtown.
"The first thing that went through my mind was that for a major street project, a big redevelopment, they're not changing a whole lot," he said. "This is an opportunity to decide what Superior Street is going to look like for the next generation, and it's kind of just a fancier version of what we have now."
Garland said he thinks Duluth can do better and improve accessibility for all, including people with disabilities.
He consulted transportation engineers and read up on street design before offering four suggested modifications for Superior Street:
• Fully tabled - or raised - intersections, where the sidewalk and road are at the same level, so people do not need to navigate curbs or ramps as they cross the street
• Tabled mid-block crosswalks designed to slow traffic and allow pedestrians to more directly reach their destinations
• Gently angled mountable curbs that provide people in wheelchairs or on foot easier access to sidewalks all along the streetside, not just at corners
• Fewer left turn lanes to allow for wider sidewalks
Garland has put together a petition calling for these design changes, and it has been signed by more than 350 people. He said the proposal also has earned the support of the Duluth Commission on Disabilities, Art Northland, the Minnesota Citizens Federation of Duluth, CHUM, the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group of Duluth and numerous downtown businesses.
Garland recently presented his plan to the Duluth City Council and told the body: "For some citizens, this may literally be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have safe and equitable access to our downtown. We can't afford to wait another 30 years to get this right."
"I implore the City Council to work with the city administration to move this forward and adapt it into the current redevelopment plan. It is not too late," he said.
David Montgomery, chief administrative officer for the city of Duluth, said local staff members are in the final stages of reviewing plans for Superior Street, which also will need to be approved by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, before the project is put out for bids in February or March.
As for Garland's proposal, Montgomery said: "I think there are some opportunities to take into account some aspects of it, but we're pretty far down the track. If we want to start construction in 2018 - because any changes you make to the plans ... can affect stormwater flows, stormwater locations and things like that - it's possible we'd have to completely redo the plan, which would mean we would not get started by 2018."
While Montgomery doesn't want the timeline for the project to slip, he said city administration is willing to consider some of Garland's proposals nevertheless.
"We are looking at some of them internally, and to the extent we can make certain modifications or look at some of those, we will as we proceed forward. But we are moving along pretty far and deep into the process right now."
At Large Councilor Elissa Hansen noted that the multi-year nature of the Superior Street project could still allow for plans to be refined.
"Administration and city staff in engineering and planning have worked with me ... extensively on the items that are in Mr. Garland's proposal along with very similar ideas that I've had over the last few years. I really appreciate where they're at in terms of figuring out where there might be some open room for change, possibly in the second or third year of construction. But our plans are going out in a three-year bid. There's a potential for change, but it's very difficult obviously for that first section," she said.
Amy Burke, a Duluth resident who uses a wheelchair to get around, urged the Council to give Garland's proposal careful consideration.
"For me, downtown Duluth is pretty much impossible the way it stands for me to get around. I don't go downtown unless I have to. We need more accessibility down there," she said.
Regardless of whether his proposal becomes reality, Garland considers his effort worthwhile.
"In the end, even if they can't change anything at all, I still don't see it as a loss, because I think it has kind of opened some people's minds to having a better planning process in the future," he said.