Two arborists retained by the Save Our Street organization held a presentation on Sunday afternoon at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul to discuss trees in urban environments and the possible impacts of construction projects.
The crowd of about 100 people seemed to expect to learn that the Summit Avenue Regional Trail, which would add a protected bike trail to the historic avenue, would be a great risk to trees. But the arborists — Chad Giblin and Manuel Jordán — did not provide assessments or address specifics of Summit Avenue.
Instead, the arborists referred to themselves as “educators” and noted, accurately, that no final city plan has been released. They explained standard considerations that the St. Paul Forestry Department will follow, including critical root zones and soil compaction, as it creates a road reconstruction plan.
“Life for trees in cities is hard,” said Giblin, owner of Trees & Me LLC, which provides consulting, tree care and training. “They’re not set up to grow in concrete and asphalt. The best chance for positive engagement is while construction is being planned.”
Attendees also inquired about other tree health topics, including how well the city has handled emerald ash borer and whether a decrease in motorized car traffic could improve life for the existing trees.
The city has emphasized from the beginning of the Summit Avenue project that it is placing a “high priority on maintaining greenspace and trees corridor-wide.” Gary Todd, chair of Save Our Street and moderator of the event, wants data to back that up. “We need something more than a verbal commitment from the city about their intention to preserve trees,” he told the group on Sunday.
But the city is going through its standard process. “The master plan sets a high-level vision,” said city project manager Mary Norton. Once the master plan is approved, then the city can begin a more detailed analysis, she explained. “During design and engineering, specific existing conditions are surveyed, and specific trees are evaluated between project staff and City Forestry,” said Norton. “This helps determine the type of tree protections needed in construction documents for tree preservation.”
Trees vs. Bikes?
The meeting room on Sunday included some skeptics who don’t trust the city to prioritize tree health. Attendees cited the trees removed as part of an ongoing project on Cleveland Avenue (that project is under Ramsey County’s jurisdiction, not the City of St. Paul) and issues with new boulevard tree plantings faring poorly in the neighborhood. The meeting agenda prominently featured a quote from Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax: “I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues. / Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing’s going to get better. It’s not.”
St. Paul has a thriving tree canopy, due largely to the city’s efforts. Most of the character-defining trees of Summit Avenue were planted and are now maintained by the city. “City of St. Paul forestry department staff — they’re doing amazing work,“ said Giblin. “They’re interested in science-based and evidence-based approaches to tree care and preservation. They’re speaking for the trees.“
One local resident expressed concern that the debate was being reduced to “trees vs. bikes.”
“I think there are numerous ways to increase safety on Summit and promote sustainable transportation methods while preserving the trees and Summit’s historical presence,” said Kelsey Dahlager, who lives a few blocks north of Summit in a one-car family and frequently bikes around the city with her two toddlers.
Another man who challenged the tone and direction of the meeting said later that he attended “to learn what the so-called SOS group hoped to accomplish” and was frustrated by how much emphasis has been placed on the bike trail when the necessary road reconstruction, already scheduled to take place with sewer and water main repairs, could be the primary strain on the trees.
The city is expecting to present a singular, corridor-wide master plan for Summit Avenue at the end of October. That plan will be open to additional public input before reaching the City Council for a vote. Meanwhile, members of the public are invited to post comments on the city’s engagement website for the project.
Streets.mn managing editor Amy Gage contributed to this report.