A rendering of Summit Avenue in its historic heyday

Bring Back the Historic Character of Summit Avenue

There’s a frustrating “debate” going on about the future of St. Paul’s Summit Avenue these days.

Here’s the quick version. The way I see it, three things are not debatable about the Summit Avenue Regional Trail Plan. These are the facts with which everyone can begin a conversation. (And yet, the vast majority of media narratives or in-person discussions seem unaware of this key context.)

  1. Summit Avenue needs to be reconstructed, which means re-doing the hundred-year-old utilities beneath the surface. There’s no alternative to reconstruction; continuing surface repaving means wasting scarce city Public Works money for a smaller and smaller return.
  2. Any street reconstruction inherently imperils trees. The tree roots along Summit Avenue have been growing for decades, and when the utilities (e.g. important sewers) are dug up, some roots might be damaged. It’s a fundamental part of sewer replacement.
  3. Expensive reconstructions allow the city to make large-scale safety improvements at little-to-no extra cost. This is important because the existing 30-year-old bike lane design is currently not safe. It is not designed to serve kids, older people, families or vulnerable riders, and the city should improve it. 

Once we all agree about these three pieces of common ground, people in St. Paul can have a useful conversation. I’d love to talk about that! 

(Instead, thanks to a group of wealthy Summit Avenue homeowners — known as SOS — the vast majority of public discourse about the Summit Avenue regional trail proposal has devolved into a heap of misinformation. It’s personally disheartening. Throughout the summer, I began avoiding Summit Avenue when biking around St. Paul, even though it’s the street I’ve used most in my life, having grown up a block away.)

Road construction at Summit and Grotto, c. 1915, the last time the street was reconstructed (author’s photo collection).

Today, instead of harping on the sad state of public discourse, let’s turn to something more productive: history.

I wrote a book about St. Paul history, St. Paul: An Urban Biography, and have spent quite a lot of time studying St. Paul historic minutiae. I’ve read through every book of St. Paul history I could get my hands on, spent years focused on the history of urban design and even street paving (Clay McShane, anyone?) and went so far as to get a Ph.D. in a field that focused on the connections among streets, public space, transportation and social relationships. 

In my opinion, the dumbest part of the content on the SOS website — which is saying quite a lot — is the bit about historic preservation. According to SOS, “a Regional Trail will put at risk what must be preserved.”

They go on to say on their website (emphasis mine, and apologies for the tortured prose):

A regional trail that changes the features of what the community has invested so much to maintain threatens the Summit Avenue corridor. The historic streetscape brings tremendous value to the city and region as a tourist and visitor destination.

Why else would the city and state tourism offices promote its features? And why are residents drawn to this green oasis like a beckoning mirage away from the hustle and bustle of commercial business districts?

Many cities throughout the United States once had grand streets and boulevards throughout their cities, such as Prairie Avenue in Chicago, Euclid Avenue in Cleveland, Park Avenue in Minneapolis, and Fifth Avenue in New York City, to name a few.

All of these streets have at least lost a portion of their residential and historic character, except for Saint Paul’s Summit Avenue. The tree canopy, wide boulevards, slate curbs, and more greatly contribute to this historic character.

SOS website

Note the things mentioned: history, trees, greenery, curbs. Note the things not mentioned: car storage, asphalt and motor vehicle traffic.

As a literal expert on St. Paul history, I was perplexed by these claims. Namely, I’m not sure what the heck whoever wrote this was talking about. If we correctly assume that the impact on trees has nothing to do with bicycles, what else, exactly, is being lost?

Summit’s Historic Character Is Not about Cars

To figure out this Sturm und Drang, I dove into the bible of Summit Avenue history: Ernest R. Sandeen’s book St. Paul’s Historic Summit Avenue. Sandeen’s work was the alpha and omega of the Summit Avenue and Cathedral Hill preservation movement, pivotal in reframing Summit Avenue as a place with historical value. Thanks to work by him and other preservationists, the city and its residents have restored many buildings that line the street today. 

Summit Avenue, 1890, from Northwest Magazine (via Ernest R. Sandeen); Sandeen describes Summit thusly: “Along this driveway, the procession of carriages continued summer and winter until displaced by the automobile during the 1920s. In a real sense the disappearance of the horse marked, if not the end of the avenue the end of its first great era.”

Dig into Sandeen’s book, and you get a sense of the street’s character during its historical heyday. Back then, the main purpose of Summit Avenue was for social engagement and recreation. Wealthy homeowners would use the street to promenade, to take out their carriage, and to go to and from events, churches and clubs. The street was a place to “be seen” and to converse, in much the same way that, today, you might see pairs of joggers, dog walkers or (gulp) teams of spandex cyclists strolling or rolling along the often wide sidewalks. Historically, the street was more about socializing than speed.

Looking west on Summit, c 1890s (photo, Minnesota Historical Society)

Today’s Summit Avenue is a far cry from that historic vision. Stop for a second and look at the street. Better yet, spend two minutes standing at the corner of Summit and Snelling (or Dale or Lexington). Soak in the atmosphere. Enjoy the sounds of car horns and revving engines. Inhale the PM10 pollution. These days, Summit Avenue is dominated by two things: fast automobile travel and car parking. The joggers having their way through the trees on the boulevard median, or the hammock loungers hanging out around Macalester College, are the exception and not the rule of how the street is used. 

The bike lane, in particular, is narrow and unpleasant, especially east of Lexington Parkway. Having grown up a block away on Portland Avenue, I’ve biked down Summit more than any other single street on Earth. By far the most peaceful, relaxing time to do so is late at night, when the number of drivers dwindles down asymptotically close to zero and you might bike the entire stretch from the river to Ramsey Hill without a single encounter with a car. The rest of the time, Summit Avenue can get stressful and unpleasant, good mostly for the kinds of cyclists who like to ride as fast as possible and/or are used to dealing with aggressive speeders.

Anyone else, though, is not going to enjoy it very much. The one time I ever got my late father on a bicycle, I took him for a brief half-mile trip down Summit Avenue. He was then in his late 60s, hadn’t ridden a bike in decades, but wanted to try it out because I had spent so much of my life getting around on two wheels.

It surprised me, but he and my stepmom were terrified by the experience. We got off Summit as fast as we could. I learned then that it’s not designed for anyone who isn’t used to — and numb to —  the unpleasant experience of having a truck speed by 4 feet off of your left shoulder.

Summit Avenue boulevard and the spot where Alan Grahn was killed (author photo)

The same problems are readily apparent for anyone with a kid. I once rode back and forth with a friend and his three children down Summit Avenue. Watching him and his wife anxiously trying to keep their 10-year-old son from straying outside the thin white lines was torture for me; I can’t imagine how unpleasant it was for them.

Summit Avenue shouldn’t be like that. It should be a park-like recreational place, a street designed for families and seniors, for joggers and strollers, to stop and converse, and even for people to play bagpipes or croquet on the wide boulevard if they want. The best thing about the current plan from the Parks and Rec Department is that it will reorient the street to make many more of those people comfortable and safe. And interestingly, the new and improved Summit Avenue will look and feel a lot more like its historic predecessor, the street from a century ago.

A bagpiper practicing on the Summit Avenue median (author photo)
St. Paul workers painting the existing Summit bike lanes, which offer no real safety (author photo).

If you want to be a preservationist pedant — which I do only when it suits my fancy — Summit Avenue should have a recreational bicycle trail prominently featured in its right-of-way. During the period of historic significance, roughly 1880 to 1920, the street was designed and intended and used for recreation, display, community and conviviality. It was not an arterial route for commuting, and it was definitely not a place where people stored personal vehicles when they were not using them. If you’d told someone in the Summit Avenue heyday that one day the street would prioritize car storage, treating the avenue like a stable or a garage, they’d have been mortified. 

If you ignore the classism and stark inequality, the 19th century vision of Summit Avenue was great. It was a place organized around community and being outside, a street that connected people. Every preservationist should embrace the regional trail plans for Summit Avenue, keeping the granite curbs while insisting that the city remove at least half of the parking from some parts of Summit Avenue to make it safer for more people.

Returning Summit to its slow-paced, recreational, family-friendly grace should be the goal.

Plans for the street’s improved bike lane: Replacing car storage with a protected bike trail, full of people riding recreationally (and rather slowly) down the avenue, is a much more historic use than what you see today. The plan would restore, rather than remove, the historic character of Summit Avenue (images from the City of St. Paul).
Ruthie is a frequent Summit Avenue bicycle traveler (author photo).

As a dad, I want to use Summit Avenue as a place to get around and travel in comfort, dignity and safety with my 2-year-old daughter, Ruthie. I picture a Summit Avenue bike path that’s designed to give us all these things, unlike the narrow, door-zone painted lane you see today. 

That’s basically the vision of Summit Avenue that architectural historian and journalist Larry Millett describes in his foreword to Sandeen’s book: an exception to the motor regime that dominates the streets of every American city. When he wrote it in 2004, Larry Millett described Summit Avenue like so:

“On pleasant days, the avenue becomes the city’s central promenade: strollers, roller bladers, and bicyclists roam up and down its four-and-a-half-mile length, while automobiles filled with gawking out-of-towners cruise slowly, irking local drivers in a hurry.”

— Larry Millett, from Sandeen’s book

I love Larry’s work, but nearly 20 years later that’s not a good description of Summit Avenue today, which is chock-full of speeding cars and half taken up with parking, anathema to its historic character. 

Instead, that’s a great description of what Summit Avenue should be. The bike trail proposal from the city reflects the true historic character of Summit far more than the status quo. Let’s make Summit great again, put people first and put the nonsense in the trash bin of St. Paul political history where it belongs. 

Editor’s note: The city is accepting public input on the Summit Avenue Regional Trail Plan until 11:59 p.m. today (February 28, 2023).

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.