West St. Paul is counting on a $22 million overhaul of Robert Street to transform its main commercial route from a hazardous stretch of concrete and crumbling blacktop into an attractive main street that will boost the entire city's image.
But at almost every step of the way, it's proved to be more difficult than planned.
The latest hiccup in efforts to rehabilitate the road, which stretches south from St. Paul for 2½ miles through the center of West St. Paul, is the conspicuous lack of green in the final plans. That surprised some city officials, who'd expected a tree-lined street.
"I want trees and I want a lot of them, and I want them all up and down," said City Council Member Jenny Halverson. "To me, trees are vital to improving the atmosphere on Robert. Right now it's a sea of concrete and I am afraid that it will remain a sea of concrete if we don't have these trees."
But engineers say there's not enough room, and a few dozen trees in the median and others where space can be found will have to be enough.
The yearslong process of overhauling the street has encountered plenty of other bumps. The city has clashed with business owners upset that a new center median will cut off access for some customers; cost estimates ballooned from $10.4 million to more than $20 million last year; and the city came close to losing crucial grant funding because a promised pedestrian bridge was deemed too expensive and dropped from the plan.
The existing road's center turn lane and the 140 business and residential driveways that dot the street create an unusually busy traffic scene that results in a crash rate 89 percent higher than comparable four-lane roads, the state says. The road typically carries 16,000 to 26,000 vehicles per day, according to MnDOT.
While the No. 1 goal of the project — the largest public works undertaking in the city's history — is to make Robert safer, "to me, almost equally important, is to improve the attractiveness of Robert Street," Halverson said.
Consultants recently presented plans for $1 million in streetscaping and $1.5 million in lighting for the project. Boulevard trees are absent from the plans because the city right of way between the road and private property is too narrow to fit trees after space is reserved for a safety zone and sidewalks wide enough for wheelchairs.
After enduring 3½ years of construction, starting next year, residents will expect to see a major change, Halverson said. "Not just a freshening up. Not just a cleaning up."
Residents who frequent the road say they'd like to see improvement but agree that space is limited.
"It needs an upgrade,'' said Don Carroll of West St. Paul, who lives close to Robert and drives it often.
Carroll's view is that there is too much commercial development along the street to allow for boulevard trees, but he would like to see ornamental grasses and low trees planted in the median.
Kate Keane of South St. Paul said she's lived with Robert for 40 years and "I don't see how they could get the boulevard trees in. I can see each single business beautifying the property outside of their store.''
Robert, a busy commuter route between St. Paul and southern suburbs, is a state road.
Both state and federal money has been contributed to the project — making the road subject to MnDOT and Federal Highway Administration design rules.
It's the combination of those rules that makes an 8-foot strip along the road too narrow for planting trees, according to Dave Hutton, the consulting engineer from SRF who has been project manager for the city.
The first 2 feet in from the curb are a "clear zone" required by MnDOT so that cars don't hit something if they happen to jump the curb.
Beyond that, 4 feet must be kept clear for sidewalks wide enough to meet federal rules to allow safe passage for people in wheelchairs.
"That leaves you 2 feet — that is a small area for a tree," Hutton said.
Buying extra land up and down on both sides of the road for the entire 2 miles of the project would have cost too much, but the city is now trying to selectively buy easements on 10-foot strips to put in trees and streetlights. The property owned by Lowes is one example, Hutton said. "We are hoping to work with them and get that 10-foot strip dedicated."
The city is also trying to encourage businesses to landscape behind the sidewalk as they renovate. A few businesses have already done so.
"I very much appreciate those businesses who are greening their properties but it's not the same as having trees that line the street," Halverson said. She said she will discuss the issue further Nov. 25 when the council is scheduled to take final action on the landscaping for the project.
"Everybody would like trees along there, including us engineers," Hutton said. "It's not like we are against them. … The long and short of it was there is not enough room. "