By Jane McClure
The St. Paul City Council on April 22 unanimously approved three street reconstruction projects for this year, including the first phase of the Griggs-Scheffer project in the Highland Park neighborhood.
Griggs-Scheffer is the largest of the three with 338 properties in an area bounded by Randolph, Hamline and Scheffer avenues and Edgcumbe Road. It has an estimated cost of $9.95 million, supported by assessments to abutting property owners totalling $2.21 million. The final cost will not be known until bids come in, and the final assessments will not be ratified until next fall after a second public hearing.
Two neighborhood meetings were held earlier this year to review the project. This year’s work includes sections of Juno, Niles, Hartford, Bayard and Scheffer avenues. Stretches of Eleanor, Alaska, Vista, Highland Parkway and Edgcumbe Road are slated for 2021.
Work is scheduled to begin this month and end in November. It will include new pavement, curbs and gutters, driveway aprons, sidewalks, street lighting, boulevard trees, sewer and water main replacement or repair, storm sewer catch basins, public art and ADA-compliant pedestrian ramps at corners. The city also is working with the Capitol Region Watershed District on boulevard rain gardens to improve drainage and water filtration.
The COVID-19 pandemic meant that affected residents had to email in their comments, rather than testify in person. About 20 neighbors weighed in. Most of those who sent comments said the assessments were too high. Others asked about such issues as boulevard tree replacement and utility work.
Several retirees expressed concern about their fixed incomes and uncertain status of their investments. Others said they have been laid off or taken a pay cut as a result of the coronavirus.
Bayard Avenue resident Erin Buie said the letter with her assessment was a “real gut punch” when she opened it. She was among those asking that the project be delayed.
“Since that time, our economy has collapsed, putting many citizens of St. Paul in dire financial circumstances,” she wrote. “This assessment, layered upon an extremely high property tax burden, is likely the proverbial straw that will break the camel’s back for me. If it goes through, I will be looking to leave my cherished house and neighborhood, and I know several retired couples on my block are in the same boat.”
Juno Avenue resident Lisa Bowman said her expected $5,616 assessment is higher than her property tax bill. She called the amount “alarming” and said it will have a negative impact on her household budget even if she spreads out the payments over time.
Another Juno resident, Nelson Fox, said he is “deeply disappointed” at his family’s assessment. They bought their home two years ago because it was affordable for a young family. Now he said the family is considering a move as soon as possible.
Ward 3 City Council member Chris Tolbert, whose home is in the project area, spoke for work to go ahead. While sympathizing with the economic burden the assessments create, he pointed out that property owners can spread the cost over 20 years. Disabled and elderly property owners can also seek deferred payments.
“I bought my home in 2009 and this work should have been done a decade ago,” Tolbert said. While admitting that the timing is not ideal, he cited the benefits of improved streets, sidewalks and lighting.