Two sides in bike trail debate pack Parks & Rec hearing room.
The controversial plan for an off-road recreational trail along the 4.7 miles of Summit Avenue will return to the Saint Paul Parks and Recreation Commission for a recommendation on May 11. Commissioners have until then to sort through more than two hours of testimony presented on April 13 during a sometimes raucous public hearing.
More than 250 people packed a meeting room of the Palace Community Center. Others stood in an adjacent hallway to hear arguments for and against the one-way trails that would run down either side of Summit. Almost 80 signed up to testify. Although some commissioners expressed concerns about the project, they voted down a motion to table any action on the plan for six months.
City is under a tight timeline to approve regional trail plan
The city is under a tight deadline to approve a master plan for the project, a detail that only came to light during a recent court proceeding. Saint Paul and the Metropolitan Council entered an agreement in April 2021 that gave the city $125,000 in state funding for planning. If the city were to get any additional regional funds for the project, a final plan needs to be approved by June 30, 2023.
The City Council is expected to hold a public hearing on the Summit Avenue Regional Trail on May 24. The Planning Commission Transportation Committee heard a presentation on the project on April 17, and the full Planning Commission will review the plans on April 28.
Proponents say it would make for safer biking
Proponents said a trail that is raised and separated from motor vehicle traffic would provide the safety cyclists need, and families and children using the trail would be safer than in Summit’s existing on-street bike lanes. A raised trail that is built outside of the parking lanes would also eliminate the possibility of driver’s-side car doors suddenly opening in the path of bicyclists.
Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition cochair Andy Singer said a raised bike path is the “gold standard” when it comes to safe design. The coalition supports the city’s plan to separate the Summit trail from the traffic lane with a parking lane where possible, and the off-road trail should be easier to keep clear of snow.
Trail would make winter biking easier
On-street bike lanes do not work well in winter, Singer said. He cited a recent effort to keep the bike lanes on Marshall Avenue open throughout the cold months. That resulted in vehicles towed, neighbors upset and bike lanes left in poor riding condition.
“I’m so glad to see this proposal, especially for the buffer,” said Lexington-Hamline resident James Slegers. “(Summit) would be greatly improved,” he said, not only because of the safety of the trail, but the promise of a new surface without the loose gravel, bumps and potholes that plague Summit’s existing bike lane.
When new bike lanes were striped on Cleveland Avenue several years ago, “there was a lot of doom and gloom,” said Ben Challberg. He uses those lanes frequently and has been able to live without a motor vehicle. He contends that improved bike facilities elsewhere would allow others to do the same.
Hamline-Midway resident Paul Nelson said Summit has a long history of being a corridor for bicycles and that the proposed trail would provide a much better and safer experience. “This would make Summit safe for all who use it,” he said, “not just the bicyclists.”
Union Park resident April King urged the Parks and Rec Commission to consider studies that demonstrate the safety of raised, separated bike lanes. She said the design eyed for Summit could reduce bike-vehicle crashes by half.
Off-road trail would detract from Summit’s historic character
Project opponents raised an array of arguments against the recreational trail, from the effect it would have on the historic character of Summit, to the loss of trees, to the harm it would cause by removing much of the on-street parking on the eastern half of Summit. Removal of parking was an issue for businesses as well as residents, especially women who said they worry about having to walk long distances at night.
City may be underestimating the loss of trees
Save Our Street (SOS) focused its arguments against the plan on the potential loss of trees. City officials have estimated that 221 trees could be lost to the reconstruction of Summit with the recreational trail. An arborist hired by SOS estimated the potential loss at more than 950 trees.
“We don’t want what happened on Cleveland to happen on Summit,” said SOS member Gary Todd, referring to a Ramsey County Public Works project in Saint Anthony Park that resulted in the loss of many more trees than anticipated.
Some say project has not been fully vetted
Several people argued for more time to discuss the project and consider alternatives. According to Todd, the project’s impacts are not well understood and the risks of change need to be evaluated. “Please postpone your vote,” Todd said. “Summit Avenue is too valuable an asset.”
The project would alter the historical integrity of Summit, according to many opponents of the plan. They also said the design proposed by the city does not meet national historic standards.
“Once we lose this, we don’t get it back,” said Summit Avenue resident Bethany Gladhill, referring to the historic charm of Summit.
Loss of parking could hurt local institutions
Representatives of the Summit Avenue Residential Preservation Association and Ramsey Hill Association spoke against the plan. So did the owners of Summit businesses and organizations. The University Club, German-American Institute, James J. Hill House and Cathedral of Saint Paul all bring many visitors to Summit.
Christopher Keith, an architectural historian who owns rental property on Summit, said his tenants and many of his neighbors who rent apartments or own condominiums on Summit are concerned about the loss of parking.
David McLaughlin’s family has owned and operated the Summit Manor reception house at 275 Summit Ave. for many years. His parents were leaders in the drive to restore the historic homes in Ramsey Hill years ago. “If you take away half of the parking, you’re really going to challenge my business,” he said.
McLaughlin served on a design review committee for the Summit Avenue Regional Trail. He said the April 13 meeting was the first time he had really felt listened to.
Not being heard was a theme for project opponents. Most of the public testimony on the project has been taken online due to the lingering fears of the COVID-19 pandemic. Summit Hill resident Liza Gibba said she wished city officials would listen to more ideas. Her comment, “just remember how well the city led us through organized trash collection,” drew loud cheers.
For information on the draft plan for the Summit Avenue Regional Trail, visit tinyurl.com/mt3h9c93.
— Jane McClure