Photo of the six-cornered Dale-Front-Como intersection in St. Paul.

Dale Street Reconstruction: How Neighborhood Involvement Is Paying Off

I live one block off of County Road 53, Dale Street, just north of the Como/Front/Dale intersection. I am a board member of the North End Neighborhood Organization, the district council for my neighborhood. My wife and I have lived here for almost four years, and when we moved in I helped Trista MatasCastillo’s election campaign for Ramsey County commissioner in her attempt to defeat incumbent Janice Rettman.

In short, I believe in neighborhood engagement.

I shared MatasCastillo’s stated commitment to make the city more walkable and bikeable and, in particular, her promise to deal with Dale Street. Incumbent Rettman’s stance on Dale Street (paraphrased) was that Dale Street will go on a road diet over her dead body. MatasCastillo won her election pretty handily and is chair of the Ramsey County Commission; and now, four years later, a new plan for Dale Street is emerging.

When I heard about the Dale Street Reconstruction project coming — what the county calls a “safety conversion” — I wanted to get ahead of it and ensure that people’s voices are heard, particularly in my neighborhood. For those of you not familiar with Dale Street north of Front Street, it is a four-lane road that acts more like a freeway than a city street. Trying to cross Dale Street on foot is always an adventure, and people living right along Dale Street have to contend with the possibility that their property or persons might be damaged by an out-of-control motorist on Dale.

The reconstruction project is a mill and overlay, which is taking off the top layer of asphalt and replacing it with new asphalt. It offers the ability to change how the road is striped. In this case, the proposal is to convert the road from a four-lane road to one lane each way with a center turn lane used by motorists in both directions. Often this can include bike lanes. This is commonly called a 4-to-3 conversion, or a “road diet.”

A 4-to-3 conversion, like any road change, has pros and cons. In the pros category:

  • Slower traffic and fewer accidents.
  • Less severe accidents due to slower speeds.
  • It eliminates a class of pedestrian accidents on a four-lane road in which a car that stops or slows for a pedestrian may cause the car behind it to change lanes to get around the slowed car, thereby endangering the pedestrians who are crossing.
  • One less lane opens space for bike lanes, parking refuges and room in the center turn lane for concrete pedestrian refuges, which means pedestrians have to cross only one lane of traffic at a time.

On the cons side, less traffic may be flowing through and at slower speeds, and backups may result from the lesser throughput. 

Neighborhood Divisions

At the annual Marydale Festival, held in Marydale Park in September 2022, we asked people as part of our NENO booth to tell their Dale Street horror stories. One brave soul said she crosses at the Como/Front/Dale intersection to get from the Como neighborhood to Crossroads Elementary School with a bunch of children on bikes. Nothing bad has happened to her or the kids, but I’m terrified every time I see them crossing. This is just one way that Dale Street divides up two neighborhoods — Como and the North End — unnecessarily.

In early December, I set up a mailing list called the Dale Street Coalition, and did some door-knocking and outreach through the North End and Como district councils. In particular, I wanted to inform people about the county’s open house and to make sure that people stayed engaged over the whole planning process, which will run throughout 2023.

Dale Street neighbors mingle and mark up plans at the Ramsey County open house on January 10, 2023 (photo by author).

On January 10, Ramsey County held a listening session/open house about its plans for a 4-to-3 conversion on Dale Street at the Como High School library from 4 to 6 p.m. It was pretty well attended with around 50 people filtering in and out. Poster boards on easels had information on the project, county consultants were on hand to speak with and large printed-out maps of the proposed changes allowed people to write comments on Post-It Notes.

The proposed project goes from just north of the Como/Front/Dale intersection to Highway 36 and so covers both the Como and Front End neighborhoods and Roseville from Larpenteur Avenue to the highway. People were in attendance from all along this route. Representatives from the neighborhood from the top of the hill just south of County Road B on the east side expressed concerns with the lack of sidewalks on the east side of Dale between Roselawn and Larpenteur avenues as well as fast traffic on Dale Street. A number of my neighbors were there as well.

MatasCastillo and her legislative assistant made an appearance at the open house, urging people to let the county know of their concerns. I learned that changing Dale Street was attempted once before, in 2014, and the project ended quickly. A public meeting was held at the North Dale Recreation Center across Dale Street from Maternity of Mary Catholic Church.

Front Street, a half block east of Como-Front-Dale, at the intersection of the three streets (photo by contributor Wolfie Browender).

According to Betty Conley, a Dale Street resident who was at that meeting, “As I recall, Erin, the project manager, couldn’t get through her brief initial presentation before the shouting out from some attendees started. The remainder of the time it was an out-of-control shouting match, with folks with the loudest voices and poorest manners taking up most of the time and space.”

At the time, opponents were concerned about loss of on-street parking, slowed down traffic and drivers cutting through the neighborhoods to bypass Dale. Also, people asked what would happen when a funeral procession took up the northbound lane headed for Elmhurst Cemetery, whose northwestern corner abuts Larpenteur Avenue and Dale Street. Once the county closed its comment period, the result was a fairly even split between support and opposition, but Rettman refused to support the project, and the county ultimately dropped it.

Maybe that is why the initial open house was held in a high school library in the late afternoon instead of in a community center in the evening. But hiding out won’t help the process. I’d rather see meetings held at times when most people can attend, because long-term, constructive engagement with residents is the only way to deal with their concerns. I was encouraged at the open house by the variety of people’s responses to maps of the route. These included separated bike lanes, pedestrian refuges, additional crosswalks, more visible crosswalks and pedestrian lights.

Numbers Tell the Story

In my door knocking along Dale Street between Lawson and Jessamine avenues, I heard many stories of people’s trees and fences being run into by cars on Dale Street. Betty Conley was among those.

“I now know it is unsafe to be on the sidewalk, boulevard or even part of my yard with the number of out-of-control vehicles that leave Dale Street,” she said. “There have been two of these accidents within one year on just my block; they occurred during the day and when the pavement was clear. As I have a responsibility as a property owner to maintain those spaces, that places me in an untenable position. Up and down Dale you can see the result of vehicles damaging property.”

She is now concerned about being in part of her yard after a vehicle crashed into one of her large trees. That accident was so severe that her next-door neighbors found some of the debris in their backyard.

Another reason my interest in this issue got re-kindled is the appearance of a coffee shop in my neighborhood on the opposite side of Dale Street, Abogados Cafe, the first Latina-owned coffee shop in the area. To get there, I have to cross Dale Street on foot, which is always a treacherous proposition. Along the stretch of Dale that I am most familiar with — from Como/Front/Dale to Maryland Avenue — cars roar down the hill toward Maryland well beyond the speed limit.

Looking north on Dale Street at Lawson Avenue, with Abogados Cafe on the left and the crossing at Jessamine near the bottom of the hill (photo by author)

Several years ago, I read that the University of Minnesota did a study of crosswalks in St. Paul by seeing if drivers would stop for people in the crosswalk (exciting and dangerous work!). Dale at Jessamine was one of 16 St. Paul intersections evaluated. On page 61 of the study, it states: “The site perceived as the most dangerous to cross and the coders’ most dreaded location was Dale and Jessamine. The reasons stemmed from the high speeds of vehicles traveling through the intersection and extremely low yield rates (i.e., only 16.5% of drivers yielded).”

Ramsey County is continuing to do outreach. Project manager Luis Flores of Ramsey County met with the North End District Council Land Use committee on February 28 and the Como District Council committee a week before, citing 175 crashes in five years along this stretch of Dale — including 35 rear-end crashes, 24 cases of single vehicles running off the road, 11 head-on crashes and a dozen bike or pedestrian crashes.

The owners of Abogados Cafe attended to press for parking in front of their business. There was not much given from Flores on this, saying it was non-standard to accommodate parking with bike lanes. He did promise two more engagement meetings: one this summer that will accommodate comments from the January open house and one near the end of the year with the final design.

I hope that this process does finally slow speeds down on Dale and allow Como and the North End neighborhoods to connect into the future.

Photo at top courtesy of contributor Wolfie Browender