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.
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.
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.