Insanity is defined as doing the same thing but expecting a different result. That is where Saint Paul now finds itself. Our elected officials and city staff profess to be all for preserving historic tree canopies but powerless to stop their destruction. Edgcumbe Road, Cleveland Avenue…. Now trees on Summit Avenue are headed for the chopping block as city planners ignore all other options and steamroll proposals that will forever change the historic character of the longest stretch of preserved Victorian architecture in the United States.

I typically bicycle over 6,000 miles a year and have commuted daily, year-round, from Summit Avenue to downtown Minneapolis for almost 25 years. I am confident we can do much better if the planners would just listen.

Maybe the city’s bureaucracy is siloed: Planning doesn’t talk to Forestry which doesn’t talk to Parks and Recreation which doesn’t talk to Public Works. And nobody talks to the people most affected—the residents. The plan to replace Summit Avenue’s existing bike lanes with a separated bike path is a classic example. No meaningful public engagement occurred until a private party alerted residents to the city’s plan to “reimagine” Summit Avenue’s historic character out of existence in the name of improving bicycle safety. Safety is actually going to get worse, not better.

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History tells us that two-way trails don’t work in residential settings. Cycle-savvy European countries abandoned two-way paths in urban areas over 20 years ago. They are just too dangerous.

Rather than listening to concerns, the planners and their consultants gave canned presentations over a Zoom link and refused to respond to basic questions. They were asked if other options for a connecting bike trail were considered. There was no response, even though Marshall Avenue was identified as a more popular choice in the city’s own survey last fall. Instead, we are presented with a contrived zero-sum choice: You can save some trees, but you will have to accept a much more dangerous two-way bike path with electric bikes speeding on the same off-road path as slower bikes.

History tells us that two-way trails don’t work in residential settings. Cycle-savvy European countries abandoned two-way paths in urban areas over 20 years ago. They are just too dangerous, and most Saint Paul cyclists have strenuously objected to the added dangers compared to the existing bike lanes. But there was no mention of this by city planners.

Instead, the planners huddled behind closed doors and have now proposed a bizarre “compromise” that would eliminate the parking lane in an area with the heaviest use of on-street parking and still likely shave off the southern half of Summit’s tree canopy east of Lexington Parkway. How many trees will be lost? Planners refuse to answer, claiming the plan is not final. But no worries; the city will do its best to minimize tree loss.

We don’t have to look any farther than Cleveland Avenue to know that when the sawdust settles, we’re going to lose hundreds of trees on Summit Avenue. Just ask any fair-minded arborist.

We don’t have to look any farther than Cleveland Avenue to know that when the sawdust settles, we’re going to lose hundreds of trees on Summit Avenue. Just ask any fair-minded arborist. Or better yet, let’s hear from the city forester, who certainly must know better. No arborist with integrity believes that trees won’t be lost. It’s only a question of how many.

The city planners are ignoring basic Metropolitan Council requirements that an off-road trail must be “placed where it will have no adverse impact on the natural resource base.” They have refused to listen to the concerns of the State Heritage Preservation Office and the Saint Paul Heritage Preservation Commission, or to consult with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Despite repeated promises to share their latest proposal, the planners’ obvious strategy is to keep those most affected completely in the dark until this is a done deal.

It is not too late to save Summit Avenue. Let us hit “pause” and enact a basic Tree Preservation Ordinance like other cities have. Designating Summit Avenue as a Special Recreation Feature—already used elsewhere and a perfect fit for Summit—should be enough to qualify for federal dollars without the trade-offs being demanded just to get a shiny new object.

Let’s have a transparent process and a real conversation among the Met Council, the city and those who are most affected, the residents and the cyclists—before it is too late once again.

Bob Cattanach

Bob Cattanach lives on Summit Avenue.

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