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).

63 thoughts on “Bring Back the Historic Character of Summit Avenue

  1. Monte Castleman

    It still amazes me the number of people that are suggesting that while on a bicycle, having nothing but a thin strip of paint between you and 4000 pound vehicles is somehow superior to having a concrete curb and boulevard space- real protected infrastructure. Last summer’s survey I did (and where I reported the results here), where Bloomington has retrofitted four lane death roads to include official or unofficial painted bike lanes, about a third of both adults and kids are still so terrified of riding on the street with cars that they continue to ride on the sidewalk. This on streets that have a fraction of Summit’s traffic volume and where there’s generally no on-street parking so you don’t have to worry about getting hit with a door. And then you have the issue of people that simply aren’t going to ride their bikes if sidewalks and unprotected lanes are the only options available, and fewer bicyclists makes bicycling more dangerous for everyone.

    1. TJ

      From what I have been able to ascertain, this really comes down to an ideological split between biking advocates. One side believes that you should find the way to promote ease of access and comfort for bikers, and the other believes that you should find ways to emphasize that the road should not merely be thought of as the domain of the cars. While I do believe that the latter is correct, even I as a person who is fairly comfortable riding most places in the cities still much prefer a cycle track when available. I’ve had too many deeply unpleasant interactions with drivers. Also if I’m being honest I think that the “road-for-all” bikers tend to come across as the hardcore spandex-clad types who probably had one too many annoying interactions with a pedestrian around the Chain of Lakes.

  2. Jenny WernessJenny WernessModerator  

    This is such a great overview. And I love the color-matching of Ruthie and the Safer Summit sign!

  3. Pine SalicaPine Salica

    Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to move the idealized Historical Character window even further back and revert to a walking path only!
    Still, a promenade-friendly space sounds nice to enjoy. I’m here for promenading!

  4. Bill Mantis

    It would be very useful to see the objections SOS raises reduced to bullet points and prioritized so that we can better understand their resistance. I’ve been trying to follow the controversy, and honestly, the only legitimate argument they raise is the potential loss of tree cover. And Bill Lindeke dispenses with that argument in this piece.

    1. Johnette

      Is Bill Lindeke an arborist? Independent professional arborists issued a report, key findings are:
      “Section 1 – Saratoga St. S. to Albert St. N.- Lexington-Hamline/Macalester-Groveland neighborhood Impact from Mill & Overlay – 67 trees
      Section 2 – Lexington Parkway S. to Victoria St. N. – Summit Hill neighborhood Impact from full reconstruction – 97 trees
      Section 3 – Virginia St. to Nina St. – Cathedral Hill neighborhood Impact from full reconstruction – 35 trees
      The Impact from mill and overlay was minimal. However, the complete reconstruction analysis of Sections 2 & 3, part of Saint Paul Parks & Recreation’s plan, showed that 60.6% of the trees would be severely impacted, defined as ‘unlikely to recover’ from the construction activity. Extrapolating this analysis against the whole length of Summit Ave, a total of 1,561 trees (pg. 117 – 90% plan) estimates that 950 trees would be severely impacted.”

      The tree issue is of importance to everyone. Yet Rachel Coyle is conspicuously absent from public meetings. Has Park and Wreck brought in independent opinions from arborists on this crucial matter? Walk or drive along Summit and see for yourself how close the trees are to the curbs that being moved for this project.

      1. Carl

        The arborists themselves were at a meeting that “Save Our Street” arranged:

        In addition to the many unfounded assumptions you’re making, your comment includes a pretty misleading representation of the arborists’ report. In said report, they estimate that 42% of the trees they surveyed (83 trees) were “at severe construction impact” assuming no protective, preservation, or recovery methods are used before, during, or after construction. They then list several techniques for protection and post-construction recovery. Your statement that “60.6% of the trees would be severely impacted” is incorrect and misleading.

        Additionally, you cannot “extrapolate” the results from these three sections you chose to have them study to the entirety of Summit, as each area is different. You yourself point out that Section 1 is substantially different than Section 2 and 3. Your statement that “950 trees would be severely impacted” is incorrect and misleading.

        Data from actual report:

        Only 199 trees evaluated by visual inspection from the ground (194 public, 5 private), and were then grouped into three categories of theoretical risk, assuming that no protection or tree preservation measures were undertaken. “Tree impacts were estimated without the inclusion of in situ tree protection or implementation of tree preservation measures.”
        83 (42%) “with severe construction impact”
        48 (24%) “with moderate construction impact”
        68 (34%) “with minimal construction impact”

        1. Gary Todd

          Carl, you are correct. One section analyzed the impact of mill & overlay and found it negligible. Whether you agree with that or not, you are saying that a 42% tree loss is acceptable to you! So losing 655 trees is ok by you? Let’s press Parks & Rec to push for a comprehensive, enforceable tree preservation ordinance so we don’t have to rely on the discretion of any construction contractors.

          1. Bill Lindeke

            My whole point is that a mill and overlay is not going to fix the street. It won’t even last 5 years. Continuing to mill and overlay Summit Avenue after a century of degradation of the foundation is a ridiculous enterprise and waste of scarce city money.

    2. Justin

      Johnette, “Mill and overlay” is not an option, as water and sewer lines beneath the road need to be replaced, and that will likely impact some trees. The whole roadbed is coming up no matter what, and simply laying it back the same as before is a waste of an opportunity for improvement. I wish SOS could be minimally honest about what’s actually planned here.

  5. Roger T Goerke

    Excellent piece and nice historical research.
    I have only one sidebar comment about vehicle storage. The idea of storing your vehicle on the side of the road in the 1880’s would be impossible because carriages did not have locks to prevent theft. Luckily they also did not have catalytic converters that could be stolen easily.

  6. johnette

    If you read the plan, which is hard to do given how disorganized it is, you will find that TRAFFIC LANES ARE EXPANDING. For example:
    In Segment A, east and west, existing 11 feet lanes (see pg 92) expanded to 12 feet (see pg 122).
    In Segment B lanes are expanded- see pg 96 and 126. In Segments D, E, and F lanes are expanded -see pg 100 and 130.

    MnDOT says 10 foot traffic lanes are optimum for slowing traffic and safety, the regional trail plan goes against this safety guidance by increasing driving lanes to 11 and 12 feet widths. How can you claim this is going to make Summit slower and quieter?

    At the Feb. 27 meeting, Sean Kershaw said that to reconstruct 4.5 mile Summit will cost $100 million. Saint Paul has over 1800 miles of streets many of which are over 100 years old. This portends 40,000,000,000 dollars (40 billion) to rebuild all these old streets. Really? There is no engineering plan for reconstructing Summit Ave. Kershaw’s claim is inflated conjecture being used to rationalize their destructive plan.

    What’s historic about all the new pavement involved in this plan for bump outs and table intersections? Whose relative has a concrete business I wonder.

    When 60% of the trees are gone, how pleasant will all this pavement be? It will be cooler in the winter – have fun biking on all the ice. Do you really believe the city is going to maintain anything? They can’t properly plow the streets and you’re delusional if you believe they will plow the raised bike trail. Homeowners are expected to shovel the public sidewalks and get a fine if they don’t. The bike trail will be a convenient place to dump the snow there isn’t room for now. You can bet residents who are being shafted by this plan aren’t going to lift a shovel for bike trails.

    Park and Wreck assured the public each demolished tree would be replaced. The city took down a tree on the corner of Mackubin and Portland in 2015 where I live. It still hasn’t been replaced. Even when trees are replaced we are told “the city doesn’t have the budget to take care of them” and so saplings that need watering and fertilizing are left to wither.

    I agree wholeheartedly – let’s return Summit to its historic role as a social gathering place in a park setting. How can anyone with intelligence advocate this vision while advocating tree loss and more pavement?

    Recently I spent some time at the east end of Summit – very quiet and peaceful. I notice “permit only” parking signs.
    If you are serious about preserving a park setting on Summit, why haven’t other options been brought forth? Here’s one. I first saw this in Singapore and Europe has followed suit. Historic districts are preserved with permit only car admittance. Vehicle traffic is extremely reduced. Pedestrians and bicyclists have plenty of room and this happens WITHOUT NEW CONSTRUCTION. (Say good bye to profitable contracts all you leeches.)

    1. Sean Kershaw

      johnette: You are entitled to your opinion. You clearly don’t support the proposal and that’s fine. But almost all of the facts you put forward are incorrect, literally not true. For example the functional travel lanes are near or at the minimum throughout the corridor in the plan. The only difference in the 11’/12′ numbers you site are curb/gutter widths, not travel lanes. I’d be happy to say more.

      1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

        If you’re wondering whose version of facts you can trust in the above debate, I want to point out that Mr. Kershaw is the Director of the St. Paul Public Works department, and therefore quite knowledgable about this specific topic.

        1. Jacky B

          If the public were allowed to post images, we could put screen captures that show the proposed widening of traffic lanes. Since we can’t here’s the page numbers

          West of Lex
          Segment A&C
          Existing 11 feet (p92)
          Proposed 12 (p122)

          Mac area
          Segment B
          Existing 10 feet (p96)
          Proposed 11 feet (126)

          East of Lex
          Segments DEF
          Existing 11 feet (p100)
          Proposed 11 and 12 feet (p130)
          Alt. Proposed 12 feet (both directions) (p131)

          These are in the 90% plan, not an opinion.

          1. Sean Kershaw

            Those numbers above appear to be correct. As I said in my first reply, the lane width changes are context specific. For example, curb/gutter distances impact the specific lane width; the need to account for ice build-up in the winter can sometimes impact distances; and the need to accommodate emergency vehicles can all account for these minor differences. Final construction plans may offer other minor changes. I’m not sure what I’m missing here as the numbers are accurate, as it the impact on vehicle/driver behavior that I mentioned.
            1) The overall feel for drivers will be a significant narrowing of the road, and they will effectively be as narrow as possible for a collector given the issues above. This will reduce speeds and increase safety for everyone.
            2) If the point here is that the travel lanes should be more narrow, what we are offering is the best solution, as it is more narrow (and safer) than current conditions.

            1. Jacky B

              Sean, as long as you’re here—please verify this as well

              At the meeting, you mentioned curb reaction space as the complexity requiring the lanes to be widened

              (1) Minn. Rules 8820.993 specifically allows 0 foot curb reaction distances and lane value widths of 10 feet.

              (2) when parking lanes or on-street bike lanes are present, the 1 foot concrete curb is in that part of the roadway and not added to the vehicle lane

              (3) parked cars function as traffic calming to slow traffic speeds.


              If you are so confident these changes will slow down cars on Summit, Will you commit to doing a traffic study of average speeds on Summit right now and compare them after widening the road, should these happen?

              Though I really hope that other solutions can be allowed. There’s a middle ground solution here, if it would be allowed

                1. Jacky B

                  Hey, common ground. Fun.

                  To be clear, I am pushing for improved street level, bike lanes, wider bike lanes, narrowed driving lanes, and retaining the curb lines, and repairing and retaining the historic granite curbs.

            2. Johnette

              Questions for Kershaw:
              Is the current drive land width on Segment A 11 feet? yes
              Is the proposed drive lane width for Segment A 12 feet? the answer is yes, no, or I don’t know. Which is it?

  7. Joe Steinbronn

    Very informative piece, Bill. The “historical character” being claimed by opponents of the regional trail plan is the selective slice of autocentric development of the last 70 years. Like you, my hope for the regional trail is that it’s a safe route for kids to travel and explore, whether that’s to school, to parks, to stores, or to friends’ houses. Childhood independence shouldn’t be conditional on an ability to manipulate a privately-owned automobile, or have a parent manipulate one for you. When adults watch shows like Stranger Things or Dark (or anything Scandinavian, really), where the young protagonists get around freely by bike, do they not want kids to have that?

  8. Lisa NelsonLisa Nelson

    What a great article! “Period of historic significance” is such a key thing that is often ignored when talking about historic preservation. Without a focus on what is specifically significant, historic preservation unfortunately can just become a tool for attempting to preserve the status quo.

  9. Dan Gjelten

    I love this summary of the historic and preservation issues, and am grateful for Sean Kershaw’s input and steady leadership. I think is doing the best reporting on this contentious issue.

  10. Scott BergerScott Berger

    I hope this lucid, historical account helps to give the city due confidence to stay the course on their carefully thought-out plan. A few people seem too entrenched in car-centric thinking to see that the Trail plan will help to return Summit Avenue to its livable and social historical state.

  11. Melissa Wenzel

    You and your perspective, and your picture of Ruthie, give me hope that reason and rationale will prevail. Thank you, Bill!

  12. Sheldon Gitis

    How exactly is this Bolton and Menk designed concrete project going to make Summit Avenue “more about socializing than speed”? Has Bolton and Menk ever designed a road to carry fewer motor vehicles at slower speeds? Name one.

    Funneling corporate welfare into the pockets of Bolton and Menk traffic engineers and their government agency partners to accommodate an increasing number of high-speed motor vehicles is not going to make Summit Avenue safer, more tranquil or more sociable.

    Summit Avenue, which some of us are old enough to remember was once an idiotically-striped 4-lane road with no bike lane, is wide enough to accommodate a wide, safe, protected bike lane alongside a lane of light, slow-moving traffic. If the goal is to reduce the volume and speed of motor vehicles, design the street with ample protected bike lanes and minimal car lanes.

    And if you want to take your preschooler or grandpa for a bike ride on the sidewalk, that’s fine too. One sidewalk in each direction would be ample. No need to build and attempt to maintain a 2nd sidewalk next to the one that already exists.

    1. Jacky B


      Using the sidewalks is a great idea, but unfortunately it was disregarded and dismissed without any consideration by Team Master Plan.

      Keeping the bike lanes east of Lex & improving the sidewalks could be a regional trail facility. And, east of Dale, the historic sidewalks are already lusciously wide—generally 10 feet.

      Page 181, Tech Memo #2
      Feedback from the Met council

      *•Goal to identify community preferences through engagement

      •Corridor constraints should be communicated related to design decisions

      ••Trail may be separated or adjacent to curb

      •• Maintain on street bike lanes as part of trail if ROW or other constraints limit other alternatives

      •• combining existing 6 foot sidewalks and new 12 foot cycle track as regional trail facility may require additional wayfinding place making to communicate trail status

      • the trail treadway should be place[d] where it will have no adverse impact to the natural resource base*

      [end quoted material]

      This reads to me that the MC
      would allow the sidewalks to be considered a trail, and the on straight lanes to be considered a trail, in those pesky constrain conditions that are causing so much trouble east of Lexington. I would also posit that they would accept narrower (8-10 feet) for the sidewalks, in order to avoid adverse impact on trees & greenspace.

      West of Lexington the buffered bike lane offers and experience, suitable to novice writers, without cutting into the curbs (and killing trees.) (a.k.a. “adverse impact on natural resource base”)

  13. Jacky B

    From the literal experts. Hired and included in the 90% plan.

    “Any character-defining features, adversely effected by the undertaking, would in turn be an adverse effect on the individual properties [within the historic districts]” (p217)

    “After a review of these sources, it is clear the character-defining features are:

    The width of Summit Avenue:

    100 feet between Kellogg Boulevard and Lexington Avenue ( this measurement includes the 48 foot roadway and the two 28 foot grassy boulevards)

    200 feet between Lexington Avenue and Mississippi River (this measurement includes the 90 foot median, 228 foot roadways, and 227 foot boulevards)

    Maintaining the 90 foot median where it exists between Lexington Avenue and Mississippi Boulevard

    If granite curbs or marble sidewalks do exist, they should be considered character, defining features and incorporated back into place if possible” (p218)

    “It is recommended that additions to Summit Avenue should be as simple as possible and not change the existing curb lines whether it is within the hundred foot wide or 200 foot wide section of the Avenue. Minimal or no impact to the green space that is the character-defining feature to the historic district is recommended to avoid any potential adverse impacts. Keeping the design simple will not only benefit the character defining features, but also be user-friendly.” (P40) (emphasis added)

  14. Mike Vogl

    Having recently moved to the Twin Cities I set out to learn what the Summit Avenue project – and opposition – was about. This is the most persuasive source of information I’ve read. Thanks, Bill.

  15. Thomas M Reynen

    It makes no sense to me that there is little discussion about using the wide grassy median on Summit Ave between the Mississippi River and Lexington. It would need to curve around the existing trees but to me it would be a much more relaxing ride for all ages than riding alongside traffic. There might even be room for two paths going in opposite directions. The current median is pretty as it is but very underutilized. I realize that this does not solve the problem east of Lexington but I think it is still worth some serious consideration.

    1. Suzanne Rhees

      An earlier iteration of the bike path ran through the median – back in the 90s I think? Pretty, but much less safe at intersections than even the current inadequate bike lane.

  16. Alex (they/them)

    I did really enjoy the photos from your collection. Thank you. Are you a descendent from the Lindeke name that’s found on historic plat maps?

  17. Brian C. MartinsonBrian C. Martinson

    Equally erudite and entertaining, as always, Bill! Thanks for pointing out the important issues the nay-sayers are trying to obfuscate.

  18. Amy Brendmoen

    Thanks, Bill. Great post. I only wish we could get this funded and finished long before Ruthie graduates.

  19. Paul Nelson

    I believe I have seen the historic granite curbs. Those could be repurposed as borders for the cyclpad at the same surface level as the cycleway.

    I think the concern for lane width issues needs to be lowered a lot. The 12 ft width for a traffic lane on Summit should be fine, and 10 feet is too narrow.. The traffic lane will be right next to the park lane in certain segments because the painted bike lane will be taken out. And so the considerations for traffic lane width need to be different than the 11 ft width of the traffic lane the way it is now. because on Summit there will be tour busses and other large vehicles. Summit is not a truck route, but it will have some types of trucks. I measured an MTC bus to be 8 feet 3 inches width outside diameter.

    Thank you Bill for writing this. It is very helpful.

  20. Paige

    “The sad state of discourse” when a group of concerned citizens are lumped for dismissal as “a bunch of wealthy homeowners” (1) SOS has signers & supporters from all over St Paul who feel pride concern and ownership of Summit as St Paul’s treasured historic Avenue (2) Summit is home to renters, condos, sober houses, retirees on fixed incomes, as well as homeowners, including some wealthy people. This is especially true East of Lexington, where only 18% of households are single family. I don’t hear you standing up for us renters who won’t be able to park within several blocks, what about our safety getting safely to our doors after a late shift?

    1. Paul Nelson

      Why so much concern about “wont be able to park”? Is that just for the car? There are other cultural norms of assuring “getting safely to our doors” . The SOS committee whoever they all are, have disinformed and upset a lot of people about Summit. The overall project of the Summit Regional Trail 90% Plan is to make all of our lives better and more safe. The 90% Plans design provides many huge benefits to make a Summit more beautiful, historically elegant, more safe for everyone, and a much easier street system to maintain throughout the year. Paige, do you not even see that?

    2. Eric Lein

      I’ve lived on Summit close to Western Avenue since 1992 and I still remember how wonderfully peaceful it was for an entire summer in the mid- or late 1990’s while my section of Summit was being completely (I think) reconstructed as part of the sanitary/storm sewer separation project.

      All the asphalt pavement disappeared, enormous piles of dirt filled the landscape, granite curbs survived, and brand new water mains and concrete sewer pipes arrived. The construction was interesting to watch, but best of all were the months of almost Zero Traffic.

      If it was up to me, I’d make the long-since-gone quiet times permanent.

      I suggest: creating (or encouraging) an entirely different crosstown thoroughfare for drivers who just want to get places quickly; respecting existing Summit Avenue residents who own cars by reserving almost all on-street parking for holders of residential parking permits; and setting the Summit Avenue speed limit at 10 MPH.

      1. Johnette

        According to Sean Kershaw, all of Summit needs a rebuild – to the tune of 100 million dollars. According to Kershaw the 19990s rebuild at Summit and Western never happened. What else does he say that’s false? And where did this entire rebuild and its 100 million price tag suddenly come from?

  21. Jeff McMenimen

    While I appreciate the writers perspective – “Returning Summit to its slow-paced, recreational, family-friendly grace should be the goal” – his dismissal of Summit Avenue as an important bicycle commuter route through Saint Paul, leaves me wanting more. As a landscape architect and urban designer, who has been involved in numerous parkway and trail planning projects in my career (including many in Saint Paul), I know the importance of considering a broad perspective of views when planning expensive public improvements. Summit is one of the Twin Cities most significant corridors, loaded with historical value and character, deserving of a healthy debate over it’s future and the role it plays in our city. I’m also a Saint Paul resident who lives near Summit Avenue and bicycles on it frequently, for recreational and commuting purposes. The current state of Summit Avenue is unacceptable from either perspective.

    The writer supports a plan that will provide his 2 year old daughter and his aged parents with a safe, comfortable bike trail. I can get behind that. It’s important that the improvements to Summit Avenue address the needs of diverse users. But let’s not forget the important role that Summit Avenue has for decades played as one of the very few and important east/west bicycle commuter routes across the city. I can’t think of another route I would take to get across the city moving east/west. The river route is too circuitous to get there efficiently. And bicycle commuting is and should be promoted as an important alternative to the automobile. It reduces greenhouse gas emissions, improves air quality, and can be a safe and convenient way for people to commute to work, school or other places. Whatever plan is advanced, it should also consider the bicycle commuter, who has different needs than the recreational cyclist. While safety is a concern for all cyclists, speed and efficiency of movement may be more important to the commuter than the recreational cyclist. Year-round maintenance of the trail (or bike lane) is also critical – for both user groups – if the selected approach is to be successful.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      I didn’t have a car for over 10 years living in St. Paul, and biked to get around. I think the new Summit design will be just fine as an east-west bike connection. For example, I love the new Como trail between Lexington and Raymond. If you insist on on-street bike lanes, Marshall is right there; historically, my bicyclist wife actually prefers taking Marshall over Summit, while I feel the opposite.

  22. Troy Melhus

    An extremely well-written piece. I disagree with some of your perspective, but sincerely appreciate the work, background, knowledge and experience you have shared here. You’ve done more to plain-language this plan than any other outlet — including the City.

    I remain concerned — not just about the plan, but the communication and community engagement by the City of Saint Paul surrounding it. (Poor communication about city work is not exclusive to this issue, of course, (pick a tree, any tree), and despite many individual well-intentioned efforts, it’s increasingly difficult to not feel cynical about this engagement process. Seismic responses from groundswell community groups, such as SOS, seem to be the only way feedback ever gets taken seriously any more).

    To that end, and to perhaps your first point, that it’s a “debate”: It doesn’t really feel like one except for, well, in this forum.

    From the amount of work I’ve had to do to just be informed, much less engaged with this plan, I’m finding mostly muddled and confusing, one-sided presentations. Little to no comment is permitted in public, except for directions to leave feedback on a website. And when opposition or concerns are voiced, they are routinely dismissed as “well, not everyone will agree with this plan.” 

    That’s not dialogue. But that’s the new model of government-top-down-girding-for-“public comment”-and-then-we-do-it-anyway obligation. (See any “why bother” public hearing about raising our taxes).

    Which is disappointing because, to your point, this is a once-in-multiple-generations opportunity. Also to your point — and SOS’: People travel from all corners of the state to our community for this specific street.

    Unfortunately, I think how Summit got to be exactly that is being lost in this conversation: Summit Avenue’s residents and community. The city leaders who built Summit Avenue more than a century ago are not the reason why it continues to be the draw that it is today.

    Sneer at the SOS as “wealthy Summit Avenue homeowners” if you want, but they — along with all of us other neighborhood residents (renters included) — are the reason Summit Avenue is what it is now … and they (we) have been the invested, standing-room-only stakeholders whose concerns are being routinely, if not sometimes arrogantly, dismissed when we do try to engage.

    And so, similar to the ongoing struggle of Summit Avenue’s abandoned sister Grand Avenue, this whole exercise feels to many like just another patronizing pattern from a disconnected City — fumbling two of its arguably greatest assets by not meaningfully engaging with the community who ultimately maintain our own front yards.

    As for the project itself, at the obvious risk of being tuned out as “oh, you’re one of those cyclists:” I believe this lowest-common-denominator compromise clearly shows we still can’t figure out how bicycles fit into the modern transportation stream.

    I’ve lived in the Twin Cities for a quarter century. Long before I moved to Saint Paul, I recognized Summit Avenue as a progressive destination for cyclists because it was one of the few higher-traffic streets in the entire Midwest that had dedicated bike lanes and road space specifically designated for bicycle traffic. (Even the more progressive Minneapolis couldn’t quite figure that out with those wonky messenger-bike lanes in the middle of traffic – but, hey, I LOVED that they were trying).

    Summit wasn’t a cluttered-and-dangerous mixed use “bike trail” like along River Road. Or even a “sharrow” deathtrap like the current St. Clair. It was a bike lane, and I was proud to be in a city that had seemingly figured out the difference. It really was one of the longest routes and best maintained that allowed bike commuters to safely coexist and travel with controlled traffic (which as you know, per law, they are traffic — and not permitted to be on sidewalks).

    Which for a bike commuter makes this all the more challenging to engage with. At the last forum I attended, it became clear there’s no consensus yet for what this project actually means for sidewalk requirements along Summit Avenue, either.

    It’s confusing enough to try and define what “shared trail” is going to mean — for speed limits, for cyclists, for pedestrians, dog walkers, skateboards, skates, E-bikes, Lime Scooters, headphone usage, and who even knows what the next name-your-motorized-but-I’m-not-a-motorized-vehicle alternative will be. 

    Will pedestrians truly be on sidewalks only? Can bicycles still travel in street traffic when pedestrians, and children, and pets, and picnics, etc. are co-mingling on and along the path? Who and how do we even begin to enforce that?

    Simply flipping Summit Avenue’s curb space into a largely shade-free, mostly-resident-maintained, 10-foot pseudo park space that will now mix pedestrian and non-motorized traffic, is not progressive; it’s an easy-way-out compromise to continue accommodating car-first mentality. 

    Worse, it doesn’t solve conflict; it just transfers the current car-cyclist conflict to become conflict between bicycles and pedestrians instead. (That’s already begun, if even unintentionally, with your own anecdotes.) 

    If this plan goes forward, the debate 15 years from now (besides how this could have been done better) will be how bicycles on Summit are the scourge until we drive those pesky bike commuters away to somewhere else because they’re not meant for Summit. (i.e., move them to your alternative on Marshall — which, as you know, has much faster and higher traffic density, and is less safe, because it’s an even more car-centric road).

    I’m not saying I have all the answers here. I’m not an urban planner. But I a long-term invested resident who has dedicated a lot of time to making my community better.

    And I also believe we can do better, given that this will impact our city and community for at least another 100 years. 

    And I would challenge the City to do that.

    Let’s get this right.

    1. Paul Nelson

      Hello Troy Melhus:
      Correcting my error below; I meant to reply to you as follows:

      Thank you for writing. I appreciate your perspective. I want to touch upon a couple of statements. First the sidewalk space will not be removed, the sidewalk will still be in place where it is now. The cycleway space will still serve the same function as the bicycle lane in the street. There might be some other traffic, but people will still have the sidewalk to walk on.

      Basically the 90% design provides the same alignment as a “Parking Protected Bike Lane” concept. This concept floats the park lane space out in to the street, and aligns the bike lane space between the park lane and the sidewalk boulevard. The difference with Summit is that the bicycle pad will be grade separated from the street surface, as if we were to extend the boulevard out further in to the street and build a cycleway pad on that boulevard space. The change of alignment will not be displacing the tree line on Summit. The overall tree canopy will be in the same place, and does not need to be removed for Summit.

      Does that make sense?

      1. Sheldon Gitis

        Is this graphic supposed to illustrate the “90%” plan?×1024.png

        It looks like the project divides Summit Avenue into 6 segments, starting with Segment A at the west end near the River ending with Segment F on the east end near the Capitol. Is that correct?

        According to this illustration, only 2 segments out of the 6 would have the added boulevard extension/re-juxtaposition of the parking and the bike lane/sidewalk. Is that correct? Is all the controversy revolving around Segments A and C? If so, it looks like everyone would be pleased with 4 of the 6 segments, or 2/3 of the plan.

        Given that 2/3 of the route appears to be a protected bike lane alongside car traffic, why the 2 oddball segments with the boulevard extension/re-juxtaposition of the parking and the bike lane/added sidewalk? It almost seems like the planned A and C segments are just a way to add some expense to the project and piss off some neighborhood residents and bicycle commuters.

        Are the A and C segments the only parts of the route with on-street parking? Why the on-street parking near the River surrounding St. Thomas? Are the private, tax-exempt, religous-educational institutions demanding a continuation of their parasitic free parking?

        If the on-street protected bike lane is good for 2/3 of the route, why is it not good the other 1/3? Am I misreading the graphic, or are the 2 apparently oddball segments shown at the top of the graphic really as stupid as they look?×1024.png

  23. Patrick Contardo

    Thanks, Bill, for your historical perspective on Summit Avenue. I’m a serious on-road cyclist concerned about cycling safety in Saint Paul. I’m also a Summit Avenue (non-wealthy) homeowner who, like you and those who support the trail, is concerned about preserving the beauty and historical integrity of Summit Avenue for all. I believe that there is no one on either side of the trail issue not concerned about bike safety or the beauty of Summit Avenue.

    I dislike riding on Summit Avenue because of its countless potholes and speeding drivers. If both were eliminated life would be great for all of us bikers.

    But there are several reasons why I cannot support the 90% Master Plan. They have to do with safety primarily, though potential loss of tree canopy remains a big concern.

    Re: full street reconstruction. There is no question that underground utilities must at some future date be replaced, and trees will necessarily be lost. It is also true that building the trail at that time will be cost effective. Utilities in all sections of Summit likely have different replacement schedules. If one or several sections are not scheduled to be replaced for twenty to forty years, then will the trail not be built on these sections? Parks and Rec has not provided this information.

    In her presentation on Monday night, Mary Norton failed to mention two important proposals in the Master Plan: (1) closing the short segments of ten streets in Segments A and B where they cross the median that divides Summit into east and west drive lanes, and (2) realigning the trail at the 46 intersections along Summit.

    Closing those short street segments will make it less convenient for drivers going in one direction on Summit from turning to go in the opposite direction. Drivers who now have a choice of ten places from which to turn will be forced to turn on Fairview, Cleveland, or Cretin, overloading these already too-busy intersections and inevitably causing more drivers to use the side streets instead. Emergency vehicles, too, will have to travel many more blocks to turn around. Additionally, with fewer choices for turning onto or off the two lanes of Summit, drivers who use the street as their “connector route” will very likely increase their speed, jeopardizing the safety of advanced riders such as myself who prefer to bike faster than allowable on the trail.

    Realigning the trail at the 46 intersections, each of which has four corners, to make it parallel with the pedestrian crosswalks may be safer, but the cost to the existing trees will be enormous. At each four-cornered intersection, a minimum of four, and in many instances six to eight, trees will need to be removed to realign the trail, resulting in a loss of between 200 and 400 trees.

    Norton’s colleague told me after the meeting that time did not allow presenting plans for median closures and trail realignment. When I questioned traffic safety studies, she said there were none, that drivers would just have to drive more slowly and if they wanted to go the opposite direction on Summit, they would just have to drive through adjacent residential neighborhoods and be patient at signalized intersections if they want to go in the opposite direction. When asked about tree loss from trail realignment, she essentially said that it is what it is.

    I also remain confused about why Sections A and C must be increased in width by three feet, necessitating the greatest tree loss. The drive lane will be increased to 12’, though in all other sections it is eleven feet. Increasing the drive lane to meet a maximum standard is ideal, but not required. Reducing boulevard widths from maximum preferred 4’ to 3’ and trail width from maximum preferred 7’ to 6’ would save a lot of trees and quell a lot of dissent. Norton’s colleague’s response was that such compromises are not options because they would “compromise” users’ trail experience.” The Metropolitan Council’s trail guidelines do allow flexibility and compromise.

    Yes, I know that Parks and Rec says that it, too, is concerned about these matters, whether “conceptual” or decided, and that there will be time in the future to refine and to discuss them. Unfortunately, experience provides cold comfort when we look, for example, at Cleveland Avenue with its “surprise” tree removal, and Ayd Mill Road, totally bereft of tree cover and charm after its carefully planned “bike friendly” reconstruction.

    Can we slow down the final approval process so we work out all these details and avoid unintended consequences we may regret later?

    And thanks for keeping the discussion going.

    1. Paul Nelson

      Hello Patrick Contardo:
      Thank you for writing. I appreciate your perspective. I want to touch upon a couple of statements. First the sidewalk space will not be removed, the sidewalk will still be in place where it is now. The cycleway space will still serve the same function as the bicycle lane in the street. There might be some other traffic, but people will still have the sidewalk to walk on.

      Basically the 90% design provides the same alignment as a “Parking Protected Bike Lane” concept. This concept floats the park lane space out in to the street, and aligns the bike lane space between the park lane and the sidewalk boulevard. The difference with Summit is that the bicycle pad will be grade separated from the street surface, as if we were to extend the boulevard out further in to the street and build a cycleway pad on that boulevard space. The change of alignment will not be displacing the tree line on Summit. The overall tree canopy will be in the same place, and does not need to be removed for Summit.

      Does that make sense?

  24. Winston Kaehler

    How much have Summit Avenue residents contributed to the character of the Avenue in past years? H ow much have cyclists contributed?

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      The whole point of the piece is that the 1880-1920 historic character will be improved by the project.

    2. Paul Nelson

      Summit Avenue is a public street system and should be for all of us and be as safe as it can be for everyone who uses the streets. The overall function of Summit Avenue is not just for Summit Avenue residents, but for everyone. The 90% Summit Plan is not just about the bicycle because there is a great deal more that is going on in that corridor for a lot of things and transport, tour busses, emergency vehicles, etc. There is some focus that has been give to talk about the bicycle because Summit is part of a “Regional Trail System”, and the bicycle has been an important part of Summit for over 130 years. Aside from that, what is it about the bicycle that is important to all of us, whether we use (or like) the bicycle or not? If anyone is actually using the bicycle for transport, groceries, taking kids to day care, or commuting to and from work and other places (I have done all of those on Summit over the years), then those people are not in cars. Look at all the people who are in cars on our streets going places, and how many of those people are forced in to their cars? Some things to think about.

    3. Paul Nelson

      There has been concern expressed about pot holes on Summit and elsewhere. I want to note that it is the weight of the motor vehicles on our streets and roads in concert with our winter climate that create the potholes. A human being on a bicycle is simply not heavy enough to cause the process of potholes. That is a huge benefit and contribution of anyone using a bicycle on our Summit or any other street.

  25. Lou

    Thanks for the informative piece on this crucial connector of bike infrastructure in St. Paul.

    As someone who lived for 10 years in a single family home on Lexington Pkwy, 1 1/2 blocks from Summit, I can vouch for fast, aggressive cyclists feeling fine on the existing painted bike lane, but that it leaves out 90% of potential cyclists that simply won’t bike on a lane that feels so dangerous.

    I look forward to this project moving through, and seeing a much greater percentage of Summitonians riding their bikes when it’s finished, reducing car congestion.

  26. Meridith

    Hey! I’m the bagpiper! 😀 Pic taken in ~2011ish when Macalester’s music dept was under renovation. Possibly mutual friend Adria mentioned it to me when it was taken and originally posted on your blog (Twin Cities Sidewalks?).

    Anyway, I bike commute Summit to get to work, live blocks off of Summit, and think that off-street bike paths are a million times safer than the on street bike lane we have now.

      1. Meridith

        I honestly really dislike practicing in public. It creates a Where’s Waldo effect, where everyone in the neighborhood comes and stands around to watch me. I usually get people recording me on their phones (without even making eye contact with me or asking) in about 7 mins. Its a real life version of the Monty Python sketch about novel writing ( You wouldn’t stare and video someone doing tai chi or exercising. I’m not performing for people, I’m trying to practice this thing and I’m outside because I don’t have anywhere else to go. (Also, this a longstanding rant and challenge in my life lol since I have yet to own a home). I’ve also encountered a couple creeps while practicing outside who got really close to me and yelled when I stopped. If I’m in a kilt, I’m getting paid, and I’m performing for people. That being said, you should know that me bagpiping behind a tree became a joke between my partner and I that lasts to this day.

        My friend Jim bagpipes regularly at the park at Summit and Mississippi River Blvd near St Thomas 🙂 He’s a really great guy, and really happy to stop and chat with people if you ever are in the area when he’s piping.

        1. Gillian

          Oh my gosh I couldn’t tell you how many times I have biked past the bagpiper at Summit and MRB the last few summers! I LOVE it – please tell him that he has made my day so many times.

  27. Judy

    So are you going to keep motorized bikes off the trail – bikes are not what they were back in the day. Today’s Summit Avenue has more hikers than bikers. Being a hiker, I know what a problem bikers are, some think they own the the road. There are two nice trails for bikes by the river. With all the issues our citizens, especially young people, have today we don’t need to spend money on catering to white prevlidge, which this is. I’d rather my tax money went to the landbridge the Rondo neighborhood has been planning. We need to repay that community.

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