No room for trees on spruced-up Robert Street

  • Article by: LAURIE BLAKE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 12, 2013 - 11:42 PM

West St. Paul officials say boulevard trees are vital to making the new and improved Robert Street more attractive. But engineers say there’s not enough room.

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West St. Paul is heading into the largest, most expensive public works project in the city’s history: the reconstruction of Robert Street. Officials and residents had wanted the new street to have a lot of trees to transform the sea of concrete on Robert. But new landscaping plans show there is no room for trees on Robert.

Photo: JEFF WHEELER • jeff.wheeler@startribune.com,

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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.

Space shortage

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  • The reconstruction of Robert Street, which is expected to take several years and cost more than $20 million, was supposed to involve the planting of a lot of trees along the street. Instead, West St. Paul city officials and residents will have to depend on businesses to landscape properties to bring a touch of green to the boulevard, considered the city’s most important street. Planners said there is not enough room for trees.

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