Over neighborhood objections, Ramsey County to remove 160 trees along Cleveland Avenue

When Ramsey County project managers first sat down with members of the St. Anthony Park Community Council to discuss road improvements along Cleveland Avenue, plans called for the removal of 55 trees from the public right-of-way.

That was in 2018 and 2019, and the numbers of trees destined to come down have since tripled. In mid-May, the county will begin removing the first of 160 trees from a mile-long stretch of Cleveland to ready the street for reconstruction from Como Avenue to Larpenteur Avenue.

“The road is falling apart. We all know this,” acknowledged Pat Thompson, co-chair of the St. Anthony Park Community Council’s transportation committee.

COMMUNICATION

But Thompson, who had participated in preliminary planning discussions three years ago, was as taken aback as anyone when she was alerted by neighborhood residents in late April that many more trees than initially expected had been marked with pink rings for removal.

“Communication has been really bad,” she said.

On that point, county officials don’t disagree.

“Ramsey County absolutely owns the fact that we should have communicated this better to the community,” said John Mazzitello, deputy director of Ramsey County Public Works, on Friday. “In the whole public involvement process, we have to do better, and we’re going to do better.”

The work, which will run from St. Paul to Falcon Heights, is expected to wrap up in the fall of 2023, with half completed between Como to Buford avenues this year and the other half from Buford to Larpenteur Avenue next year. Construction detours will be posted in late May or early June, said a county spokesperson.

Ramsey County Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo said the county will “take a couple weeks” to review next steps with the community council.

“We’re going to pause a little bit and do a little more due diligence around the trees,” she said. “It doesn’t mean the project will stop.”

She noted that some of the trees are box elder and buckthorn and need to be taken down regardless.

“Can we make sure we’ve replanted some trees before we take them all down,” she asked. “It’s nuanced. It’s still shocking to the community. It was shocking to our office.”

SCHEDULED FOR REMOVAL: WEED TREES, GINKGO TREES AND OAK

Some residents have said they won’t miss the Ginkgo trees by the University of Minnesota campus mall south of Buford Avenue, as they drop fruit that some have likened to smelling almost fecal.

Elsewhere, however, it’s a different story. Between Folwell Avenue and Larpenteur Avenue in Falcon Heights, plans once called for removing a single tree, Thompson said. That’s now increased to some 55 to 65 trees slated for the chopping block, on both sides of the street, in that area alone.

“Some of these are what’s called ‘weed trees,’ but there’s 20 or so significantly sizable trees, probably close to 100 years old or more, some of them oak trees, that are now marked that weren’t marked before,” she said.

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Why has the project increased in intensity, at least when it comes to the loss of foliage? County officials have said a detailed design and engineering process in the past two years determined the impact of road reconstruction would be more extensive than initially thought. In addition, a handful of property owners wanted a tree or two removed from their boulevard. And once the planning got started, utilities wanted in.

“As additional utility replacements were added to the project, the number of impacted trees grew to around 160,” reads a recent notice on Ramsey County’s project website. “We recognize this is disappointing news. We’ll work with contractors to identify any additional trees that can be preserved during the construction process.”

The county plans to replace some 55 boulevard trees, and plant shrubs and perennials as part of a storm water treatment strategy. “Completing the deep and extensive utility replacements as part of the current reconstruction project limits the chances these new trees will be impacted by future projects,” reads the website.

IMPACT OF THREE BIKE LANES

Some critics have also blamed the tree issue on the inclusion of what’s effectively three bike lanes — unprotected in-street lanes on either side of the street for bike commuters, as well as a multi-use asphalt path, or “slow route,” separated from the east side of the street by a landscape boulevard.

“There’s two different types of bike users we’re trying to accommodate,” Mazzitello said.

Accommodating that many uses isn’t easy.

“The multi-use trail section, there’s a portion of that — probably less than a city block — that is requiring the removal of 71 trees, all from the U of M property,” Mazzitello said. The county worked with an arborist from the university to determine which trees should be preserved and to minimize cut-downs.

He emphasized, however, that sanitary sewer work, storm water and other utility replacements will also be impactful, and the overall tree loss can’t be blamed on bike lanes alone.

The St. Paul Bicycle Coalition had voiced support for the in-street lanes, but the St. Anthony Park Community Council had objected to them, given that they could make the street look wider, inviting faster drivers and parking in the bike lanes for delivery vehicles. “No one but a very advanced rider would ride on it,” Thompson predicted.

To appease the neighborhood, planners included the asphalt multi-use path, which will follow the east side of Cleveland Avenue from Como to Larpenteur.

MULTIPLE LAYERS OF GOVERNMENT

Adding to some confusion, planning roped in various levels of government, including the U of M. “Cleveland is on the border of St. Paul, Falcon Heights and the University of Minnesota, and owned by the county, so it’s more complicated than the average bear,” Thompson said.

“We as a transportation committee felt less involved than other processes we have been involved with, but I wouldn’t say there was no involvement,” she said. Over the course of planning, “they presented four plans, and then a fifth plan trying to make everyone happy, that didn’t make anybody happy.”

Much of the existing water distribution system along Cleveland Avenue dates back a century or more. During the reconstruction of Cleveland Avenue, St. Paul Regional Water Services plans to replace more than a mile of cast iron water main and all the lead water services within the project right-of-way. During the project, temporary water lines will be constructed to supply clean drinking water to homes and businesses.

While the street is open, property owners could choose to replace the portion of their lead water pipe that sits on their own private property. That work would be done by a private utility contractor, but it can be assessed to property taxes over time. Call Regional Water Services at 651-266-6270 for information about the voluntary assessment.

The city of St. Paul is working with St. Paul Regional Water Services on a program that, if funding allows, aims to replace lead pipes on private property free of charge to homeowners over the next 10 years, but it has yet to be revealed which areas of the city will be first in line.Related Articles
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