Bikes parked outside House of Hope church

A Potentially Contentious Summit on Summit Reframes ‘Trees vs. Bikes’

Proponents and opponents of the Summit Avenue Regional Trail Plan crowded into an assembly room at House of Hope Presbyterian Church on February 27 for a community meeting cohosted by the Summit Hill Association and the Summit University Planning Council, two of St. Paul’s 17 district councils. It was a rare opportunity for people interested in or concerned about the oft-discussed plan to interact with city staffers — and in a more civil manner than either detractors or supporters have displayed on social media.

It also was a chance for organizers to remind the assembled that the much-vaunted history of Summit Avenue did not begin with its buildings, its bike trails or with white people. “This was Dakota land,” said Summit University Executive Director Jens Werner, “long before any settlers came and built houses and stores.” contributor Ben Swanson-Hysell attended with his daughter, who “stickered” his leg to keep herself amused. (All photos by author)

By invitation, the St. Paul Parks and Recreation Department delivered an overview of the plan, which now stands at 90% completion. Project Manager Mary Norton, a landscape architect with the city, gave a detailed presentation before taking pre-submitted questions. Several other staff also were present, most notably Director of Public Works Sean Kershaw and Parks and Rec Director Andy Rodriguez. Also present were City Councilmembers Rebecca Noecker (Ward 2) and Mitra Jalali (Ward 4), as well as members and leaders of Save Summit Avenue, the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition and Sustain Saint Paul.

This meeting promised to be contentious. At the direction of aligned groups, participants were encouraged to wear green, “for the trees” (for Save Summit Avenue), or blue or purple (for Sustain Saint Paul). Many cyclists also self-identified by wearing helmets and high-visibility gear.

Moderators of the meeting established “ground rules” to prevent outbursts or other disruptions. Handouts established community agreements, with admonitions to “be kind and respectful” and “accept non-closure.” And participants were warned in advance that misbehavior could lead to ejection from the meeting. Nevertheless, opponents came prepared with an abundant supply of neon signs reading “NOT TRUE,” an effort to assert some form of dissent.

Opponents of the Summit Avenue Regional Trail Plan found a way to circumvent the rules of decorum to
make their voices “seen.” Many apparently arrived early to dominate the main floor’s front rows.

But for all of the posturing in the audience, the city effectively refuted the organized opposition’s central claim, that building an off-road bike trail would affect Summit Avenue’s highly prized tree canopy more adversely than the needed infrastructure work would do.

“In a roadway as old and broken as Summit is,” said Kershaw, “we have to do a total reconstruction.” The city will “go parcel by parcel” to minimize damage to trees, which the city currently estimates could affect 10 to 15% of the tree canopy. “Where contractors park their equipment, how they excavate the site — we can do a lot to minimize that impact,” Kershaw said.

City officials clarified why the trail is best suited for Summit, as opposed to other east-west thoroughfares (the tree impact on Marshall in the stretch west of the Cathedral “would be significant,” one official said), and they opened up a tantalizing question as to whether opponents are opposed only to a bike trail or to rebuilding the crumbling road surface and the related infrastructure below it at all.

St. Paul’s bicycle plan (currently being updated from the 2015 version) and its 2040 Comprehensive Plan (“Saint Paul for All”) both identify the need for a regional trail. Such an amenity reflects changes in the way people use the existing facility and how a growing group of cyclists — of varying ages and skill levels — is likely to use it in the future. Not every rider is comfortable on bike lanes that run between motorized traffic and parked cars. Most important, Summit Avenue has exceeded the life of its structural foundation, city officials said. The roadbed, water, gas and sewer lines all need to be replaced.

The event exceeded the capacity of the meeting room at House of Hope Presbyterian Church. Latecomers, some of whom struggled to find a place to secure their bikes, were kept outside in the hall.

Green-clad participants and others raised their NOT TRUE signs when Norton said that “the road has not seen a reconstruction project in over a hundred years.” Driveway crossings by cyclists are another point of concern. But perhaps the most contentious topic is risks to trees and differing estimates about the number and percent of trees affected by the project. Norton addressed the widening of the roadway in two sections. The curbs would be moved out in sections A and C, by 18 inches on each side of the road. The city Forestry Department’s assessment of trees in those sections, which begins on page 115 of section 4 in the 90% plan, determined that this would not affect a significant number of trees, though Norton also is quick to caution that more decisions will be made at the design and engineering phase.

Questions and answers

Following Norton’s presentation, other city staff members addressed questions submitted in advance and read by Summit Hill representatives.

Bikes parked outside House of Hope church
Cyclists grow accustomed to finding their own bike parking when none is provided.

Impacts on trees: Staying within the curb borders is the best way to reduce the impact on trees, said city landscape architect Brett Hussong.

Kershaw, the Public Works director, noted that pipes, sewer lines, gas and water lines — all of the infrastructure that needs to be dug up and replaced — share the soil with tree roots. “If this were only a road reconstruction project, and did not include the element of a separated bike path, the effect would be the same,” he said.

Project cost: About $100 million, for the entire five-mile stretch of Summit. That includes the entire scope of the project, and not just the proposed bike trail.

Winter maintenance plans: This involves both snow removal and snow storage, said Kershaw, which is what the buffer is for, between the curb and the bike trail. In the current configuration, car tires compact snow, which then becomes hard to remove. Winter maintenance is easier on a separated bike path.

Proposed safety measures: Norton noted safety as a big point of concern, on a street with car, bike and pedestrian users. Intersection design has not been finalized yet but is being influenced by responses to the plan at its various stages and will utilize best practices of the industry. Safety designs will be determined block by block, said Norton, because of highly variable conditions.

What other routes were looked at? The city considered Grand, Marshall and Portland Avenues as other potential east-west routes but ruled them out for a variety of reasons, including grade changes, boulevard widths, varying widths of the street itself, whether the county owns sections of the road and, in some cases, a greater impact to trees. In the end, said Hussong, Summit was chosen for this Regional Draft Plan because it offers a direct link from Mississippi River Boulevard to downtown St. Paul. And people love it.

Accuracy of data about crashes and tree impact: City officials answered this question calmly. Traffic data came from the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and Public Works; tree data, again, came from the city’s Forestry Department.

A press release from Save Summit Avenue claims that its own independent report finds damage to trees would be “much higher than the city’s estimates.” That report, which analyzes three sections of the road, is then extrapolated for the rest of Summit. The report, researched between July and November 2022, also features this caveat: “Analysis of construction impacts is limited by the lack of construction plans.” In the ensuing paragraph, the word or phrase “it was assumed that” appeared five times, to suggest what those construction plans might look like.

Expectations for cycling usage on the regional trail: Metropolitan Council data indicate that by 2040, more than 800,000 people will have moved to the Twin Cities region. Norton said this plan anticipates the future.

It’s about the trees. It’s not about the trees.

In its hired tree report, the Save Our Street group (whose nickname, SOS, annoys me for its overt reference to a maritime distress signal, when, in fact, I see no reason for distress) never mentions the words “bicycle” or “trail.” Effects on trees are attributed instead to road reconstruction. It does, however, describe incidents of severe storm damage to trees in places where sidewalk replacement projects had recently been completed (Summit Avenue Tree Survey, p. 4). There is no comparable mention of the effects of a separated bike trail.

Kershaw’s assertion, that the Regional Trail Project’s potential harm to trees is more a function of the road reconstruction than the proposed bike trail, led me to wonder whether SOS had any evidence to the contrary. I also wondered if SOS wanted the avenue’s roadbed and utilities to be replaced at all.

In an email exchange with Save Summit Avenue’s public relations director, Carolyn Will, I was referred to a bulleted list and a map of a sample intersection (below). The key differences I could discern are that the two sections would expand the road by 18 inches on each side, which potentially could harm the adjacent boulevard trees.

The rendering claims that the construction design would necessitate the removal of some trees.
An architect’s rendering, commissioned by Save Summit Avenue, imagines what a crossing might look like and how area trees would be affected.

Project Manager Mary Norton disputed this in a subsequent email exchange, saying that the boulevards in those sections offer a much bigger space for trees to grow (21 feet wide) compared with other sections (16 feet wide) and the city’s average boulevard width (6 feet wide). The diagram, which is not supported in the 90% draft plan, indicates trees that would be lost where the bike path merges with the sidewalk at intersections. This treatment is consistent with other separated bike paths crossing side streets, such as at Como and Pascal.

As for road infrastructure, SOS is adamant about passing a “tree preservation ordinance,” Will told me. When pressed to say whether SOS would support repairing crumbling infrastructure after such an ordinance were passed, Will acknowledged that it would, “where it’s been proven to be needed.”

An image from outside of the meeting, with no bicycle racks in sight.
Is this how you welcome constituents into a conversation about bike infrastructure?

Final thoughts . . . for now

This process is far from over. A public hearing is being held at the Arlington Hills Community Center on Thursday, March 9, during the monthly meeting of the Parks and Rec Commission, which runs from 6:30 to 8 p.m. SOS again is inviting its supporters to wear their green. This time, let’s hope, I’ll find a bike rack.

It will probably be noisy. Attendees will bring hopes for a bike trail that accommodates a wider range of cyclists or their fears that such a path will cause irreparable harm to the neighborhood. But after last week’s community meeting, Save Summit Avenue will have to work a little harder to directly connect a better bike lane with fewer trees.

For me, seeing small children wearing bike helmets was the brightest part of the event at House of Hope. They, and their parents, will bear the brunt of climate change. We can’t overestimate the anxiety young people are experiencing over the devastating impacts of our fossil fuel consumption. Young adults (and some of their elders) have latched onto a form of agency in cycling, one that aligns with federal, state and regional objectives to reduce vehicle miles traveled, through the use of low-carbon vehicles.

These kids give me hope, occupying themselves with big cat stickers at public meetings and building bike paths of their own with wooden blocks. May they teach their parents well.

Ed Steinhauer

About Ed Steinhauer

Ed Steinhauer is a teacher and artist living in St. Paul, Minnesota.