Summit Avenue Is Not Cleveland Avenue: Four Reasons Why

Ramsey County Public Works will be coming to cut down the trees for Phase 2 of the Cleveland Avenue North rebuild in St. Paul early this month. As people who follow local news may know, a big controversy erupted about the planned reconstruction along the stretch of Cleveland Avenue between Como and Larpenteur in spring and summer of 2022.

After community engagement in 2018 and 2019, then delayed implementation because of COVID-19 and other factors, the work for Phase 1 of the Cleveland rebuild was about to begin in late April 2022. The St. Anthony Park Community Council, the adjacent neighborhood’s district council in St. Paul (of which I am a board member and co-chair of its Transportation Committee), had been told that 56 trees would be removed. But when the trees were marked for removal with pink rings on April 27, 2022, more than 150 were slated for the chopping block.

Emails flew around the neighborhood, voicemail boxes filled up at the offices of elected officials and Ramsey County Public Works staff, news stories were written, petitions were signed, op-eds appeared. But the project went ahead in mid-June, essentially unchanged.

Stop sign with green street sign reading CLEVELAND AVE, lying in the grass
Photo by the author

The Cleveland debacle has been regrettable on many levels, and one of the biggest is the repercussions it has had on the Summit Avenue Regional Trail planning process. People from the Save Summit Avenue group (known as SOS, for “save our street”) have “waved the bloody shirt” about what happened on Cleveland as if it were proof of what will happen on Summit.

Bike lanes, they say. See? Trees will be cut down. Because that is what’s happening on Cleveland North as bike lanes have been added.

But Summit is not Cleveland. Here are four reasons why:

Summit is a city and a parks project, not a county road project

If Cleveland had been a city project, I believe events would have been different. But because this part of Cleveland is on the border of two cities (St. Paul and Falcon Heights) and particularly because it is along the edge of a major institution, the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus, it’s a county road, and the county managed the project. In my experience of previous street reconstruction projects on Raymond and Como avenues, city staff have been more adept at working and communicating with St. Paul neighborhoods.

Additionally, Summit Avenue is under the purview of St. Paul Parks and Recreation, which brings a different level of consideration to the living infrastructure around the street. Cleveland Avenue is not part of a county or city park system, so it did not receive that type of assessment.

Summit already has bike infrastructure, Cleveland does not

One thing the Cleveland and Summit projects have in common is that they’re both prompted by the need to rebuild the underground utility infrastructure. No one wants old water mains or gas lines to break or sanitary sewer lines to be disrupted. This is not emphasized enough in the Summit discussions. That aspect of both street rebuilds is primary. The fact that the Summit pedestrian and bike safety changes are proposed to overlay the utility rebuilding is a wise use of public resources. We should all be glad about that! The same was true on Cleveland.

However, the difference between the two streets is that Summit already has bike infrastructure. Replacing it in a different, safer location that’s easier to maintain in winter — while repairing the utilities below and the adjacent street surface at the same time — makes sense. Cleveland did not have any bike infrastructure, and the street and right of way are narrow, with narrow and steeply slanted boulevards in many locations and eroded and nonexistent curbs.

The paved surface of Cleveland is being widened almost everywhere at least 2 feet, from 32 to 34 feet, and where there is parking, it’s being widened a lot (from 32 to 42 feet). Plus all of the sidewalks on Cleveland are being replaced. On Summit, much of the street will remain the same width, and perhaps not all sidewalks will be replaced, though that won’t be determined until the design and engineering phase, according to city landscape architect Mary Norton.

Two photos of trees on or near Cleveland Ave. N in St. Paul MN showing narrow sloping boulevards
These photos on Cleveland Avenue North from spring 2022 show the narrow boulevards, which are often sloped, sometimes much more steeply than shown here. Most of the street has no curbs, and in areas north of Buford Avenue, there are stretches with no boulevard at all, where the sidewalk is contiguous with the driving lanes. Photos by the author

Summit planners consulted experts early about trees

The city began work with urban foresters from the St. Paul Forestry Department early on in the Summit planning process. Ramsey County Public Works acknowledges that they did not work with arborists or other tree consultants anywhere near early enough on the Cleveland project, and that’s part of what led to engineers underestimating the number of trees that would have to be removed.

Aside from the undercount of tree removals by overly optimistic engineers, additional tree removals were required for private sewer line replacements to buildings (seven trees), stormwater retention facilities that were not included in the public engagement presentations (over a dozen trees) and an incomplete tree inventory maintained by the University of Minnesota, which had omitted more than 50 trees at the north end of the street farthest from the main part of the St. Paul campus.

Lack of communication hindered the Cleveland project

What would have happened if Ramsey County Public Works had said, during the public engagement process about Cleveland back in 2019, that the street rebuild would require removing more than 150 trees? Would the plan have gone ahead as presented, or would it have been changed? Cleveland is a narrow street and some kind of rebuild needed to happen because of the aged underground utilities and other problems with the street. The project engineer insists that this number of trees would have been affected in any case, with or without bike facilities, given the narrow right of way and the realities of the situation on the ground. He may be correct.

But the community would have benefited from having information up front about the reality of the project’s effect on trees instead of seeing 150 pink rings, with no warning, in late April last year. County Public Works staff say they have heard that message. I think city staff already know that, and have been demonstrating it throughout the Summit engagement process, including at a packed meeting at House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul last Monday night.

And that is, perhaps, a fifth reason why the situation on Summit is not like the one on Cleveland: because Cleveland already happened, and no one — including the Public Works departments from either the city and the county — wants it to happen again.

Pat Thompson

About Pat Thompson

Pat Thompson is cochair of the St. Anthony Park Community Council's Transportation Committee, a member of Transition Town - All St. Anthony Park, and a gardener in public and private places. She is a member of the Climate Committee.

19 thoughts on “Summit Avenue Is Not Cleveland Avenue: Four Reasons Why

  1. Jenny WernessJenny WernessModerator  

    Thank you, Pat! I really appreciate you sharing your expertise with us.

    1. Dan MarshallDan Marshall

      Trust is a two way street. SOS based their entire objection on lies about tree loss since before the city even published their plan. When facts don’t matter, there’s really no amount of transparency that can overcome such deeply held prejudice.

      1. Johnette

        SOS info is based on expert information. Are you calling Chad Gilpin and Manuel Jordan liars? Maybe you’d like to say so directly to their lawyer.

        1. Carl

          What Chad and Manuel said:
          Of the 199 trees visually inspected from the ground, 83 (42%) are estimated to have “severe construction impact” IF no in situ tree protection or implementation of tree preservation measures are undertaken.
          83 (42%) “with severe construction impact”
          48 (24%) “with moderate construction impact”
          68 (34%) “with minimal construction impact”

          What SOS says:
          “60.6% of the trees would be severely impacted, that is 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, estimates that 950 trees would be severely impacted”

        2. Ed SteinhauerEd Steinhauer

          When I read the report from Gilpin and Jordán, I was struck by a few things. There’s this statement on page 2: “Analysis of construction impacts is limited by the lack of construction plans.” So they didn’t have enough information to make an informed assessment? Apparently not, because the word “assumed” appears seven times in the report. But the words “bicycle,” “regional” and “trail” never appear. At all. So how do you know what damage is attributable to digging up the road and related infrastructure, and those that are damaged from construction of a bike path? Finally, they didn’t come up with the number that the Summit group often sites (is it 950? Something like). That number is extrapolated from the report. I’m not willing to go as far as Dan does above, and call it a “lie.” But an extrapolated number based on a series of assumptions is…not credible.

    2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      Honestly it goes back and forth whether the City or County is easier to work with and get information from, depending on who and what. In general though, the city of STP does a good job at communication IMO. Director Kershaw is very open about what’s happening, more so than past Directors.

  2. Paul Nelson

    Thank you, Pat. I was wondering about what the issues were with Cleveland, and I am certain there are many details to that street system. Hopefully there may be places where new trees can be planted, or perhaps some bump out boulevards can be created in places if a few parking spaces can be given up. Anyway thank you for writing this.

    1. Pat ThompsonPat Thompson Post author

      The county has committed to replace trees one for one on public right of way, and to water the trees for the first year. On land that’s owned by the University, the replanting plan is not been announced yet.

  3. Anna Wagner Schliep

    Completely agree here, and it’s why it’s a bit wild to see the SOS group on Summit arguing with city engineers and foresters. I have no way of knowing if Cleveland’s impact would’ve been the same – bike land or no – but I’m inclined to believe it wouldn’t been given what needed to be done and the narrowness of the road. I live in SAP also and completely avoid Cleveland in the winter and spring because of the potholes the size of my car due to the street and boulevard design.

    Thanks for the article!

  4. Matt

    I think the severe lack of trust St. Paul residents have for the city / county is an underappreciated factor in almost any decision involving city infrastructure. It seems in every discussion I have with other St Paulites about a public works initiative someone utters the following sentence: “They can’t competently [implement a trash program, repave Cleveland, maintain or plow the streets, etc, etc] and yet they expect me to believe they will competently [insert initiative under discussion]”. A belief that the city and county can’t do anything right engenders distrust of the city and county.

    I agree with Bill Lindeke that Kershaw has moved the needle in terms of responsiveness, and the fact he engaged in the comments on Bill’s recent post about Summit sets him far above every other city “leader”. But Kershaw is hobbled by decades of city “leadership” who have shown and continue to show little interest in maintaining city infrastructure, and when people weave their way along 3rd world quality roads it’s his team, not the mayor or council, who get tagged with the incompetency label. Until elected officials show some interest in growing the tax base to sustainably fund streets, bridges, sidewalks and trails, people will perceive the city as incompetent and hence untrustworthy.

  5. Patrick Contardo

    I do my best to base decision on facts, not conjecture or anecdotal information. Right now, many of us don’t have enough facts needed to make an informed decision. I’m a serious road biker and want safer urban biking, but I’m not at all comfortable with the way Parks and Rec has handled its “community engagement” process. It feels opaque and patronizing.

    Though I and others have asked Parks and Rec staff many times, they will not release its estimated underground utility reconstruction schedule for Summit Avenue, which it is now telling us will coincide with construction of the Regional Trail. All tree loss, according to Parks and Rec’s most recent talking point, will be the result of “required underground utility replacement, not trail construction.” Thus, the argument now goes, “Summit Avenue trees are going to die anyway, so there is no longer any factual reason not to build the trail.”

    The logic of this now popular mantra only holds up if all 5.2 miles of Summit’s underground utilities need to be replaced now — a $90 –$100 million project according to Public Works. The unanswered question is, must all 5.2 miles be replaced today, or will some (all, half, a couple?) sections not need rebuilding for three, four or five or even more decades?

    Parks and Rec wants to build the trail now. Not ten, twenty, thirty or forty or sixty years from now. And it’s unlikely to build the trail in segments. Assuming (until we get validation otherwise) that some segments of Summit will not have to be rebuilt for decades, will Parks and Rec promise that it will not construct the entire trail now, separate from future street reconstruction? Saint Paul is not going to spend $20 million a mile ($2 million per block) to replace utilities that don’t need replacement, and it would be unwise to build the trail only to tear it up ten or twenty years from now.

    From its ongoing underground utility inspection program, Public Works knows the estimated useful life of all utilities under our streets. It is unlikely that Public Works and Parks and Rec have not discussed the timing of future street reconstruction vis-a-vis trail construction. Are we asking too much for them to share this information so that we can make an informed decision based on fact, not ill-informed conjecture?

    1. Mike

      St Paul’s website has great info on these questions:

      Summit ave needs to be reconstructed, which is a part of the regular maintenance for streets as they age. This is extremely common and happens all over the city, there’s no mystery here. Street paving is a large part of this process, but it also includes work from St Paul Regional Water Services, Public Works, and private utilities (Xcel). Again, this is all the normal course of events. The city has an overview of the process, and they say the typical estimate is 14 weeks for a given project:

      This reconstruction of the street itself is what will cause the damage to trees, regardless of the specifics of the street design. It doesn’t matter if there’s a bike lane or a bike trail, either way the street needs to be dug up and reconstructed. If this reconstruction is not done, the pavement conditions and utility infrastructure will continue to degrade. Without reconstruction, there is also no chance for improving infrastructure: there will be no chance to replace lead water mains, improve stormwater management, replacing old gas mains, etc.

      That’s the choice:
      A. a reconstructed street, with all the pros (improved pavement, bicycle & pedestrian facilities, non-lead water mains, updated gas mains, stormwater management) and the cons (some risk to trees that are growing into/under all of those facilities, which can then be replaced with new trees more appropriate to the location and climate, which is also a normal and expected part of the lifecycle of street trees)
      B. or a continual degradation of all infrastructure to the point of unusability

  6. Johnette

    Yes, Summit is different. It’s not just any street. Summit is an historic street, a national treasure, it’s canopy of 100-year-old trees is priceless. And it’s not just Cleveland Ave. Look at Edgecumbe. Look at Ayd Mill. Look at Wabasha downtown. Down came the trees. We don’t want Summit to look like that. This sudden talk of rebuilding Summit for infrastructure sounds like hooey given it’s sudden onset, with no documentation, project plan, funding plan, etc. on board. It doesn’t add up.

    1. Ginny Housum

      Thank you, Ted and Patrick, for your coherent responses to the city’s lack of transparency about this project. The city’s approach seems to be that they want to embark on this project and no amount of taxpayer or community objection is going to deter them. So many city initiatives lately are like this: the planners and elected officials think they know what is best and can and should ignore the populace. I am getting close to thinking it is time to initiate recall petitions against council people who categorically refuse to listen to their constituents. I hope Mitra Jalali is reading these comments

  7. Jenny WernessJenny WernessModerator  

    One comment removed, per our comment policy: “Comments that may be removed or flagged by moderators: contain vulgar or abusive language; personal attacks of any kind; microaggressions or offensive terms that target a specific ethnic or racial group, socioeconomic class, familial status, LGBTQIA+ people, gender, religion, or age.”

  8. Patrick Contardo

    Thanks Mike, for the link to the Public Works’ street reconstruction website. It provides a general timeline from 2022 through 2051, but, unfortunately, it provides no specifics as to scope of reconstruction, which has a huge impact on how many trees will die in the process. However, the good news is that it shows that Segment A, from Mississippi Blvd to Fairvies, and Segment C, from Syndicate to Lexington, have no reconstruction planned. Zero! None! Never! “Trees are going to die anyway because of street reconstruction” is not applicable.

    Segments A and C are at greatest risk for tree loss because trail construction requires going several feet beyond existing curbs. Since there will be no street reconstruction in these segments, why not remain within existing curbs and not sacrifice hundreds of trees on the altar of The Perfect Trail? It can be done staying within Metropolitan Council trail guidelines and without sacrificing safety.

    Reconstruction for the other sections of Summit, according to Public Works, is scheduled variously between 2032 and 2051. Will each segment of trail construction coincide with street reconstructions? Doing so would extend trail completion to 2051. Or will the trail be built now (assuming funding), in its entirety? If we are to buy into the ‘trees are going to die anyway’ mantra, does that mean that trees replaced now will have to be replaced in twenty or forty years when Summit Avenue is reconstructed?

    I’m not a civil engineer like Mr. Kershaw, or a PhD in urban bicycling (though I’m a former parks commissioner and I ride a lot!), so I can’t claim to have answers to these challenging questions. But if they cannot be answered, why are we pressing forward with such haste? Accidents happen when we outrun our headlights, and unintended consequences happen when we shoot before we aim.

    Perhaps those who have the answers could provide a comprehensive explanation for the timing of trail construction vis-a-vis street reconstruction, and a treii assessment of tree loss, including those lost due to trail alignment at 46 intersections. This public service information would allay many fears, conjecture, and rumor and help the public make informed decisions that affect us all..

  9. Mike

    As specified in the 90% plan, the long-term improvements (reconstruction and trail) are predicted to happen in a phased process that will take 10-15 years. It’s on the first page of the “Implementation” document. Much will change in the years between now and then, and there’s no way to predict what those changes are. That’s how planning works. That’s why this is called a “90% plan.”

    If this project could, in some fantasy world, be 100% done by tomorrow, then the specifics and timelines would be obvious. But that’s not how the world works. We have to plan for the future the best way that we can, and that includes an acknowledgement that we can’t/won’t know everything.

    They have a plan, which is 90% done, and that’s why we’re all talking about it. And we’ll continue to talk about it. And the plan will get change and grow and 10 years will pass and progress will be made.

    And eventually we’ll have a reconstructed street, with all the pros (improved pavement, bicycle & pedestrian facilities, non-lead water mains, updated gas mains, stormwater management) and the cons (some risk to trees that are growing into/under all of those facilities, which can then be replaced with new trees more appropriate to the location and climate, which is also a normal and expected part of the lifecycle of street trees). The only other choice here is to not reconstruct the street, which leads to a continual degradation of all infrastructure to the point of unusability.

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