Public hearing on Summit Avenue Regional Trail Plan

A Heated Public Meeting Lays Groundwork for Future Summit Trail Debate

The saga of the Summit Avenue Regional Trail Plan just keeps going, like cyclists with the wind at their back.

Before we take you through the torturously long public hearing at the April 13 St. Paul Parks and Recreation Commission meeting — on an unseasonably warm evening that mirrored the rising tempers in the room — here are some updates about how the trail plan is wending its way through the city’s decision-making process:

  • A member of the group Save Summit Avenue, the trail’s chief antagonist, filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming that the City has not responded to requests for documents and communications about the trail plan, and seeking to delay any further public hearings on the project until the City has provided such information.
  • The Transportation Committee, which advises both the Planning Commission and the City Council, voted 8 to 1 on April 17 to recommend approval of the city’s plan.
  • The Planning Commission itself heard a presentation about the plan on Friday, April 28 (click here and forward to the 75-minute mark). Commissioners found the plan to be “in conformity with” the city’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan, according to one commissioner, and voted to move it to the next step.
  • That takes the plan back to the Parks and Rec Commission on Thursday, May 11, at 6:30 p.m. That body will vote, without another public hearing, on whether to recommend that the City Council adopt the plan.
  • In an unexpected twist, a member of Macalester-Groveland Community Council‘s Transportation Committee on April 24 brought forward a lengthy resolution claiming that the city failed to adequately address disability parking in its trail plan. The committee debated and then tabled the issue, which it will take up again at its next meeting, on Monday, May 22, 6:30 p.m.
  • Finally, the St. Paul City Council is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the Summit Avenue Regional Trail Plan on Wednesday, May 24, at 5:30 p.m. That will be a lengthy meeting, too, assuming it doesn’t get pushed back at a key hearing for the lawsuit tomorrow (Tuesday, May 2, 9 a.m.) in Ramsey County District Court.

An Overheated Public Hearing

Meanwhile, the approval process made a jam-packed stop at the Palace Rec Center on April 13 for the St. Paul Parks and Recreation Commission meeting, which featured presentations by both a proponent and an opponent of the plan as well as an extensive public hearing.

The Parks Commission is made up of volunteer board members from the community who encourage the public “to voice their concerns and opinions” — which people did in large numbers on this hot Thursday night.

An overflow crowd packed into the rec center prompted one audience member to shout a question about why the city didn’t arrange for a larger room. The decorum didn’t improve much from there. Save Summit Avenue, the well-organized and apparently well-funded body that has dotted yards with SOS (Save Our Street) signs on the historic avenue, and which proceeded with its long-expected lawsuit, turned out in force. Its public relations director, Carolyn Will, greeted attendees at the door, offering green signs to sympathetic neighbors that read “Postpone vote / Learn the impacts / Choose the best design.”

With the commission having little power to scuttle the Regional Trail Plan, both the SOS group and trail proponents focused on rallying their troops, with strong turnouts and some visible sign of where they stood — bike helmets being the favored choice for the “pro” side. By asking the commission to delay the City Council vote, Save Summit Avenue hoped to send the plan back to the drawing board. It nearly succeeded.

Presentations Offered Nothing New

To start the proceedings, project manager Mary Norton, a landscape architect with the city, presented a truncated version of her talk on February 27 at House of Hope church. This time, members of the audience were less muted than they had been at that gathering, where rules of engagement were strictly enforced. “Your time is up!” someone shouted from the back of the room. “Your time is cutting into public comments!” shouted another.

At the end of the presentation, commission members were able to ask questions, which are paraphrased below with the answers:

  • Was it ever determined that this is what residents want? Cheering erupted from the audience. The process was a response to the city’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan, Norton said, and to direction from the Metropolitan Council. “So the answer is no?” came a question from the back of the room.
  • What do you say to people who say a separated lane isn’t safer? Industry best practices indicate a separated lane is safer for streets with higher traffic volumes, and traffic on Summit Avenue meets that threshold. Technical advisors offered city planners a “toolkit” to be applied to specific conditions at each intersection.
  • How will people get to the churches and businesses on or near Summit Avenue? How will we bring people in for special events, such as the Twin Cities Marathon? The bike trail is both a recreation and transportation project, both a destination and a transit thoroughfare. City land use policies prioritize the needs of pedestrians and cyclists over on-street parking. For businesses and churches, the city encourages off-street parking opportunities to be developed, along with more use of car sharing and transit. “You could encourage bike riding!” a heckler shouted.

Commissioner Rafael Espinoza remarked that people in Minnesota prefer to drive, a fact, he said, that isn’t likely to change. He mused that he’d like to see a project of this magnitude proposed on the east side of St. Paul, a more racially diverse and lower-income neighborhood, overall, than Summit Avenue. That spoke to the equity complaints that some trail opponents, surprisingly, sought to address that evening.

After the meeting a trail opponent spoke with Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition cochair Andy Singer about the SOS group’s proposed Short Line/Grace Trail alternative.

Following the city’s presentation, SOS speaker Loren Norén spoke for the anti-trail group. She focused on impacts to trees, noting the discrepancy between estimates from the city’s forestry department and SOS’s own independent report. Noting a corresponding decrease in property value for every percent decrease in tree canopy, Norén said the trail plan would threaten real estate prices in the neighborhood.

Andy Singer, a trail proponent and co-chair of the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition, also was granted time to speak. Far from being a safety hazard, separated bike trails have become the “gold standard” treatment for bicycles, he said, having been implemented in many other U.S. cities. Separated trails would be more comfortable, especially for less experienced riders, and could be maintained in winter in ways that on-street paths rarely can, he said.

Public Comment Was the Show

The evening was an opportunity for commissioners to hear and weigh public opinion. Had it instead been about new information, we might have heard more about the final draft of the Regional Trail Plan. SOS might have trumpeted its alternative proposal for what it calls a viable East-West Corridor (spoiler alert: it’s not) or shared news of its pending lawsuit against the city for allegedly withholding information.

But the real purpose for most people who sat through the lengthy meeting was to be heard. Attendees were encouraged to sign in upon arrival and “take a number” for a two-minute turn at the podium. In the ensuing two hours, 76 speakers were given an opportunity to speak. By the time 10 p.m. rolled around — two hours past the meeting’s scheduled ending time — 10 of those speakers had passed up their turn.

“Most of the people being listened to here look like me,” noted a woman who said she was torn between both sides of the debate.

The majority of speakers spoke out against the plan, but a good many spoke up for it as well. In all, 38 people spoke against the proposal, while 25 spoke in favor. Three had no discernable opinion (or were unable to make their point clear in two minutes). That is close to a 60-40 split.

Among the comments by trail supporters:

  • “Invest in climate-resilient infrastructure that lets us all be less car dependent.”
  • “What kind of bike lanes do you want to have when cars are no longer the default option?”
  • “Let’s not kid ourselves. Brightly painted bike lanes don’t protect us from increasingly larger vehicles.”
Responses in favor of the trail plan fell into discernable “buckets” (graphic by author).

And excerpts from comments by trail opponents:

  • “Walking farther to get to my car in the dark puts me at risk.”
  • “We can’t afford to house the homeless or fix the potholes, but we can afford a separated trail on Summit Avenue?”
  • “Many of my renters can’t access their garages through heavily rutted alleys in the winter.”
Arguments against the trail plan on April 13 likewise fell into categories (graphic by author).

Other East-West Routes?

Although the impact to trees has been a dominant theme in arguments against the plan, many more people at the public hearing on April 13 expressed misgivings about parking loss and impacts to businesses. Two people noted the tour groups that come to see the nation’s longest stretch of Victorian homes and tree-lined boulevards on Summit Avenue. Realtors and landlords evoked the impacts to renters for the loss of on-street parking, especially in the multi-unit housing blocks in the easternmost sections of Summit Avenue, where the plan proposes to reduce parking.

Several women cited concerns about having to walk farther at night to or from a distant parking spot. And people on both sides of the debate raised equity concerns. Some wondered why so much money and effort is being expended in such an affluent neighborhood. Others noted that transportation infrastructure is weighted toward cars, and this plan would rebalance spending and safety for other modes of travel.

A Realtor makes a point about parking impacts along Summit Avenue, which would lose some parking spots east of Lexington.

Trail opponents offered alternative routes from Mississippi River Boulevard to the Sam Morgan Trail. One man observed that Montreal Avenue makes a direct connection between the two riverside trails, with one short turn on Elway Street to Shepard Road. Several trail opponents seemed to like his idea (though having made that 250-foot, mile-and-a-half long climb myself from Shepard Road to Snelling, I wonder if they’d like it so much once they tried it).

SOS has also suggested a route of its own, connecting the Midtown Greenway to the Sam Morgan Trail via Ayd Mill Road and Grace Street, a little-used road that crosses West Seventh beneath a viaduct. As a daily bicycle commuter, I can attest to the convenience of the latter, but that access point to the Sam Morgan Trail is still 1.5 miles from downtown. And the Short Line Rail Spur that connects Ayd Mill Road to a railroad trestle crossing the Mississippi remains a pipe dream, in spite of years of negotiations with Canadian Pacific railroad (now known, post-merger, as CPKC), which owns it.

Those suggestions pointing to other east-west bike thoroughfares serve only to distract us from the central question: whether the necessary reconstruction of Summit Avenue, to replace its outdated, aging infrastructure, should include an upgrade of its bike facilities, too. According to a city survey, nearly 85% of cyclists in St. Paul support a separated trail facility.

The focused engagement survey the city conducted indicates a strong preference among cyclists for grade-separated lanes (Summit Avenue Regional Trail Plan, p. 45).

Climate as a Key Consideration

The Transportation Committee’s nearly unanimous support of the Summit plan only four days after the Parks and Rec Commission meeting points toward a crucial consideration — namely, the plan’s consistency with a number of health- and climate-influenced city documents.

Brian C. Martinson, a member of both the Transportation Committee and the Planning Commission it advises, reviewed the Saint Paul Bicycle Plan, the Saint Paul Pedestrian Plan, the Climate Action & Resilience Plan, and the bicycle and pedestrian chapter of the Met Council’s Transportation Policy Plan in preparation for his committee’s vote. “In each case,” he told, “the SART [Summit Avenue Regional Trail] plan is highly consistent with goals, objectives and policies in each of those plans.”

Bike trail proponent Mary Henke-Haney testified on behalf of her mother, whose health and mobility issues impede her ability to use the Summit bike lane as it is currently configured.

Because Parks and Rec has more direct jurisdiction over the project, he explained, the Transportation Committee was asked specifically to evaluate the Summit plan’s consistency with the city’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan. “It was not difficult to come to near consensus about the two plans being highly consistent with one another,” Martinson said.

The recently updated Saint Paul Bicycle Plan aspires to create a network of bike trails that make cycling a viable form of transportation and follow changing trends for how people get around. The proposed Summit trail is meant to be integrated with other projects, such as the Capitol City Bikeway. The city’s goal, first laid out in its 2008 Comprehensive Plan, is to give all residents — including and most especially those in underserved communities — ready access to bike facilities and a robust trail network. In short, even people who don’t live on Summit Avenue could and would use the off-road trail for both transportation and recreation.

“Bikeways should be no more than a half-mile apart, and arterial striped bike lanes and/or off-street trails should be no more than one mile apart.”

City of Saint Paul Comprehensive Plan

The upgrade to the avenue’s current on-street painted bike lanes is based on industry best practices for streets with higher traffic volumes such as Summit. But the proposed project is also a crucial piece of a citywide puzzle, to “create a network of comfortable bike facilities … connecting our beautiful parks.”

As the last of the speakers approached the podium at about 9:45 p.m., Parks and Rec Director Andy Rodriguez quipped, “I wish we had a prize for you.” The last function of the evening was to close the public hearing so the commission could deliberate about whether to advance the plan to the Transportation Committee, then the Planning Commission and, finally, the City Council.

Hugo Bruggeman (right), who cites global warming and equity as among the reasons he serves on the Macalester-Groveland Community Council board, is confronted by an SOS member.

But some commissioners were rattled by the evening’s testimony. Commission member Dave Burns made a motion to table the resolution for six months. “Clearly, the vast majority of people here don’t want this to happen,” he said. An argument ensued among members of the commission. A city attorney vociferously defended parliamentary procedure, and remaining trail opponents defended Burns.

The vote to table the resolution went ahead, but failed in a 6-1 vote, and the meeting finally was adjourned at 10:15 p.m., at which point at least half the folks assembled had long since headed home.

Speak Up!

The Parks and Rec Commission received over 450 comments from constituents leading up to its April 13 meeting, as well as the 66 speakers they heard from directly that night. Commissioners will pore through the written comments before meeting again on May 11, without a public hearing, and then vote on their recommendation to the City Council.

Whether you live in St. Paul, or simply bike or walk through scenic Summit Avenue on occasion, we urge you to contact your City Councilmember prior to the May 24 public hearing and make your voice heard!

All photos by the author. Managing editor Amy Gage contributed to this report.

Ed Steinhauer

About Ed Steinhauer

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