A group of local homeowners has sued the city of Saint Paul in an attempt to block its plan to install sidewalks in the Edgcumbe Road right-of-way between Highland Parkway and Hamline Avenue. The half-mile stretch of roadway has never had sidewalks, and the homeowners contend the city’s plan for them would result in the loss of dozens of mature trees.
Led by Mark Wingerd and Joe Sarakaitis, the Highland Park homeowners hired landscape architect Stephen Mastey to draw up an alternative plan to accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists along the road. Many of the group’s two dozen members also donated money to hire Merriam Park attorney Ferdinand Peters to fight the sidewalk plan in court. The members of the Edgcumbe Road Neighborhood Preservation Group say they are not against sidewalks, but are opposed to the removal of trees and the destruction of the neighborhood’s “quietude.”
“Nobody wants to lose their trees,” Wingerd said. “These homes have been here for 80 years, and they’ve never had sidewalks.”
Mastey’s plan would replace the existing parking lanes with an 8-foot-wide pedestrian and bicycle path on both sides of the roadway, leaving 12-foot-wide traffic lanes on both sides of the existing medians. According to Sarakaitis, Mastey’s plan would require the loss of very few trees, and with a surmountable curb separating the paths from the traffic lanes, would allow emergency vehicles to use the paths when needed.
The homeowners’ lawsuit comes as the second phase of the Griggs-Scheffer street repaving project has been delayed due to the need to redo the substandard sanitary sewer work done during the first phase of the project in 2020.
Phase two of Griggs-Scheffer involves the replacement of sewer lines and street reconstruction work along stretches of Eleanor, Alaska and Vista avenues, Syndicate Street, Edgcumbe Road and the cul de sacs of Edgcumbe Place and Montcalm Place. New sidewalks on Edgcumbe Road are planned as part of the project in keeping with the city’s policy to install sidewalks on streets that do not have them.
Peters filed the lawsuit under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act, a 1971 statute that gives Minnesota residents a civil remedy to protect natural resources from pollution, impairment or destruction. Peters argues that the city’s sidewalk plan will harm the natural aesthetics of the neighborhood. He hopes to convince a Ramsey County District Court judge on August 27 to impose a temporary restraining order on the project.
Homeowners are hoping to save mature trees
According to Peters, the removal of the trees would negatively affect “the tranquility of the area, the repose, the quiet” of the area. The importance of the neighborhood’s tree canopy cannot be underestimated as global warming increases and summers grow hotter, he said.
Wingerd and Sarakaitis echoed those concerns during a during a recent walk on Edgcumbe. Sarakaitis pointed to several decades-old trees on both sides of the boulevard that he believes will be lost due to the sidewalk project.
“Why take a chance on (the city plan) when you’ve got several other options?” Sarakaitis asked. “But the options that (Mastey) presented don’t fit in with the city’s cookie-cutter way of doing business. They (the city) have been completely intransigent.”
The city has not indicated when the sidewalk project will begin or if it will be rebid, according to Peters. None of the neighbors’ ideas has been incorporated into the plan, he said, despite the savings of trees and money. “What we did was show alternatives that would save more mature trees and the tree canopy and the cooling effect in that neighborhood,” Peters said.
The Saint Paul City Attorney’s office said in a statement that staff from the Saint Paul Department of Public Works had met with Edgcumbe neighbors and the Highland District Council on several occasions to discuss the sidewalk plan. As a result, the new sidewalks will be laid closer to the curb than on other streets and meander around trees when possible to preserve them.
Sidewalks are what make a street ‘complete’
According to Public Works Department spokesperson Lisa Hiebert, 55 trees are slated to be removed from the public right-of-way on Edgcumbe to make way for the sidewalks. Thirty-six of the trees are ash trees and may have to be removed in the near future anyway due to the spreading infection of the emerald ash borer, Hiebert said.
The Edgcumbe Road project is part of the city of Saint Paul’s Complete Streets program, which aims to fill gaps in the city’s sidewalks, especially when the new sidewalks can be laid as part of a larger street project. Edgcumbe Road north of Highland Parkway already has sidewalks in the right-of-way.
“In our Complete Streets plan, pedestrian sidewalks are the number-one improvement we want to make,” said City Council member Chris Tolbert, whose Ward 3 includes Edgcumbe Road. The city’s plan for Edgcumbe calls for planting more trees than those that will have to be removed, he said.
Tolbert said his office has been “inundated with emails” from constituents who testified to how important sidewalks are for promoting the safety of families, seniors and anybody who loves to walk. “They are the most sought-after, important thing you can do for a neighborhood,” Tolbert said.
— Frank Jossi
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