First came the mail carrier, attempting a U-turn on the narrow street near the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s new barricades. Then came the trash hauler, backing his big green truck onto North Peabody Avenue where he made several runs at navigating a sharp turn to avoid hitting a fire hydrant.
Residents of a tiny neighborhood in Oak Park Heights found the back end of Peabody — their usual exit — suddenly off limits last week when construction crews began work on the massive St. Croix River bridge project. They’re left wondering how they’ll get to their houses when snow and ice make the only remaining entrance street into their neighborhood impassable, whether firetrucks and ambulances can reach them in times of emergency, and why they didn’t have a voice in the decision to block Peabody.
“They closed a perfectly usable, practical road that was already there,” said resident Douglas Van Dyke, who stood in the rain recently watching the trash truck creep backward past his house.
“It just feels to us that this shouldn’t be done in the first place. We’re getting steamrollered by MnDOT,” he added.
Jon Chiglo, who is overseeing the bridge project for MnDOT, said the road was closed permanently for restoration of the nearby Lake St. Croix Overlook, one of Minnesota’s early highway rests. Somebody built the extension to Peabody Avenue on state land, he said, and connected with a larger thoroughfare, Lookout Trail, near the entrance to the overlook.
“The intent is to restore it to its original condition,” Chiglo said of the overlook, built in 1938 as a “wayside rest” back when the two-lane Lookout Trail was the principal highway through Oak Park Heights and Stillwater. Historical considerations figure prominently into the $690 million bridge project, which was negotiated over several years to reflect several competing interests.
“There was a belief that the roadway would develop an adverse impact to those plans,” Chiglo said.
But Van Dyke, spreading documents on his kitchen table, said the road closure was never shown on a MnDOT map until he was handed a new one at a meeting with a MnDOT engineer after barricades appeared. Van Dyke said he was stunned to discover, in addition to the barricades, that the agency has determined half of his back yard encroaches on state land.
Ian Brown and Katie Radke, who moved to the neighborhood in October, said the scenic overlook was known among local teenagers as “Joint Point,” a haven for parties after dark because of its secluded location behind overgrown trees.
Brown said they were unhappy with the “shady-like” manner of barricading the road before residents even knew it was considered a problem, and they worry about property values and safety.
“It’s been sitting there for decades,” Van Dyke said of the north end of Peabody Avenue. He’s not certain of its origin but thinks residents built it to avoid the same problems the neighborhood now faces. The only remaining entrance to the neighborhood is so steep that it’s dangerous in winter and often can’t be used.
Chiglo said the Peabody extension was never a permitted street. Residents will have to persuade city officials to do that and then MnDOT will start discussions on how a road might affect the historic preservation work. Meanwhile, he said, MnDOT is willing to build a turnaround area where the road once stood.
City Administrator Eric Johnson said the City Council has a meeting planned for May 28 to speak with residents. One solution, Johnson said, could be to permit the extension as a street and pave it. “The council knows what MnDOT desires to accomplish and we’ll take it from there,” he said.
Johnson said typical issues like timing and pricing would complicate potential paving, and the final decision rests with MnDOT. “Is the city going to have clear authority to direct MnDOT to do anything?” Johnson said. “Likely not.”
Oak Park Heights Council Member and Fire Chief Mark Swenson said construction on Peabody Avenue has made it a dead-end passage and the only usable route is too narrow for everyone to get through. “There are some issues with emergency vehicles getting through there because of their width,” Swenson said.
Radke said a MnDOT engineer knocked on her door on a Friday and the barricades went up Monday morning before most people were out of bed. Residents feel angry and neglected, and they want answers, she said.
“It’s pretty heated right now; [we’re] feeling that this was dropped on us rather suddenly with little announcement,” Van Dyke said.
Chiglo said he regrets any misunderstandings and said MnDOT wants to work with residents. “The communications could have been better,” he said. “We’re trying to engage them now. Hopefully we are going to learn from this.”
University of Minnesota journalism student Andrew Krammer contributed to this story.