Concrete jungles' dirty secret: Miles of unpaved streets

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 3, 2007 - 9:48 AM

Urban centers have been called concrete jungles for years, but in Minneapolis and St. Paul, some streets have never been truly paved.


The Twin Cities still have a few gravel roads, lending a rural feel to a handful of neighborhoods. IN THIS PHOTO: A mailbox belonging to the Gelking family on Skyway Dr. in St. Paul Thursdsay afternoon.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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Garry D. Olson couldn't believe it at first. As a remodeling contractor based in Crystal, he has driven up and down a lot of streets in the metro area. But when he turned his shiny black pickup truck toward one house in St. Paul recently, things got a little, um, gritty.

"A dirt road? ... I didn't know there were any streets like this in St. Paul. Holy cow!" he recalled with a grimacing smile. "I had just washed my truck, of course."

Olson had landed in St. Paul's Highwood neighborhood, where tiny streets wind along steep, wooded residential hills and several of the roads are plain old gravel.

Yes, it's almost 2008 -- an era when the air is jammed with cell phone towers, satellite TV signals and wireless Internet.

But some streets in the concrete jungles of Minneapolis and St. Paul still haven't technically been paved.

St. Paul has about 60 miles of streets that have never been finished to modern standards -- though most of them have been covered with enough layers of oil that they appear roughly paved. Officials there are working to change that.

Minneapolis has about 6 remaining miles of oil-and-dirt roads, although discussions are underway to finish off some of them, officials there said.

"There's no question that in a city such as Minneapolis that prides itself on being a beautiful and modern city, the idea there are places where streets have never been paved is obviously unacceptable," said City Council Member Paul Ostrow. "I personally was surprised when I learned it. ... How can we have streets that have never been paved?"

Unpaved roads may be more common in core cities and inner-ring suburbs than in newer suburbs, said St. Paul assistant city engineer Larry Lueth. Most suburbs now require developers to make improvements before approving projects, he pointed out.

Atlanta, for instance, still has about 20 miles of unpaved roads scattered in poor and affluent neighborhoods, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported earlier this year.

Divots and bulges

Jeremiah Peterson has been talking to Ostrow's office a lot lately. Since buying his house in southeast Minneapolis four years ago, he has grown disgusted with the condition of his street just off Hennepin Avenue: The sides are crumbling. Patches of asphalt, plopped down to fill divots, form bumps. And the roadway slopes like "a huge crescent moon," he said.

He found out a while ago his street had never been paved -- just oiled and later patched with asphalt.

The University of Minnesota student and Iraq war veteran who grew up near Brainerd, Minn., said he never expected such rough road conditions in a major city.

"I definitely thought all of Minneapolis was paved," he said. "I lived on a long dirt road [near Brainerd] and quite frankly that road was much nicer."

Minneapolis embarked on a program to pave all residential streets -- about 700 miles worth -- starting in the mid-1960s, said Mike Kennedy, director of transportation maintenance and repair for Minneapolis Public Works. That program ended in the late 1990s, he said.

"We probably got 97 percent of all of them. But there are all kinds of little pieces here and there," he said. Many of those are tucked away near industrial areas.

Peterson has passed around a petition to get his street paved, and on Tuesday, Ostrow and some city officials are meeting with the neighborhood to discuss it.

But paving won't come without a price. More than three-quarters of a mile of streets need paving in Peterson's nook of the Como neighborhood, and city officials estimate it will take about $4.3 million to do the job. To help pay for the work, the city would assess residents about 25 percent of the cost -- a ratio it always tries to achieve -- which would leave homeowners there, on average, with a bill of about $2,900, payable over two decades.

"It's not an easy fix," Ostrow said.

Eating dust and liking it

In some cases, residents in St. Paul's Highwood neighborhood have balked at paving.

Maureen Mariano, who has lived there for 24 years, said she wouldn't want anything but gravel. Her street, Skyway Drive, which is gravel for about one-third of a mile, once was oil and dirt, she said. But that was bumpier and harder on vehicles, she said.

With gravel, residents simply put up with ruts when it rains. And when it's dry, well, they sometimes have to eat a little dust. To keep his sports car looking slick, Mariano's son routinely wipes down the exterior after driving the dusty trail.

Because their road has never been paved, Mariano and her neighbors would have to pay the total cost of the work, according to city regulations. And with so many homeowners living on large lots, that would be expensive.

Besides, Mariano and her husband Steve said, paving would ruin the ambience.

"You kind of feel like you're living up north," Maureen Mariano said. "But you're in St. Paul."

St. Paul is tackling it's oiled streets by spending $12 million a year to pave roads, check underlying utilities and add curbs and lamp posts. As part of that program, which the city hopes will rid St. Paul of oiled streets by 2018, residents are assessed about 25 percent of the cost -- about $38.50 per foot of a homeowner's lot width -- assistant city engineer Lueth said.

In the city of Crystal, a 1,000-foot stretch of gravel road on Brunswick Avenue N. abuts Bassett Creek Park on one side and wetlands on the other. There are no residents on that stretch, and nobody has asked for paving, a city official said.

Though it's the only north-south thoroughfare for a stretch between Hwy. 100 and Douglas Drive N., it's not a widely used route but it's an important backup, he said.

"A lot of people don't like driving on gravel roads because it chips up their paint ... they go on Douglas," city engineer Tom Mathisen said. "I think people are afraid if they bring it up ... we'll just close it. And they like it."

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102

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