West St. Paul City Council members will view a computer video Monday depicting several blocks of W. Robert Street with trees in two locations, as they begin their discussion about how many boulevard trees to buy and where to place them once Robert is rebuilt.

The video, prepared by SRF consulting, will be shown at the council's open study session before the regular council meeting at City Hall.

The $22 million reconstruction of 2½ miles of Robert, West St. Paul's main street, is scheduled to begin this year. The City Council recently separated the road work and landscaping to keep the construction project on schedule while it decides on the landscaping. Trees, sidewalks and lighting will be added to the street under a separate contract once the council settles on a plan.

Council members are grappling with the decision because spending is a concern. One option, which would line trees closer to the street, would cost $4 million. A second option, which would put the sidewalk closer to the street and trees beyond the sidewalk, would cost $1.3 million.

Council Member Dave Napier said the tree decision will depend in part on how the city is able to close a $4 million gap in funding needed for the road construction. "We do know there is a gap in the funding right now, and we don't want to put it on the tax rolls. We don't want to burden the residents with that," Napier said.

To close the gap, city staffers are trying to strike a deal with the Minnesota Department of Transportation to assume a larger share of the project costs in return for being relieved of future maintenance costs on the road. Robert now is a state highway, but if MnDOT were to turn the road over to the city or Dakota County, the state could pass off the maintenance in the future.

Trees and money

Once the funding gap is closed for the road work, it will be clearer how much the city will have to spend on trees, Napier said. "Trees are very important. We want to create a corridor that has a warm and welcoming feel to it. People do not want to have this project done and then look back and say nothing's really different other than the new asphalt and the median.

"If money were not an issue, we would probably have more trees than less," Napier said. "But since it is an issue, maybe we can have trees but also cut back a little bit on the cost."

Council Member Ed Iago's ward borders on Robert. "I have had a lot of input from constituents and business owners, and I have yet to have anyone tell me they don't want to see it landscaped," he said.

The question is to what degree, Iago said. "I don't envision a tree being planted every 50 feet," as plans now show. Iago said he would want feedback from residents and business owners before he decides on a tree plan. "We have to keep in mind what it is we are going to end up asking the taxpayers to fund on this thing, and we need to be very, very cautious about that."

Council Member Jenny Halverson, the strongest advocate for boulevard trees, does want them planted every 50 feet, but she is also concerned about their cost. She wants the city to look for alternative sources of funding to help pay for them.

"I believe in the enormous positive impact that trees consistently situated every 50 feet in the boulevard along the entire stretch of road would have on our community," Halverson said. "There are some short spans of road where the investment in moving or erecting retaining walls is likely not worth our dollars. I am open to hearing how we can compromise on parts of the plan to make sure we are not forcing trees into spots where they will not be beneficial."

The trees will help transform Robert Street from "an area that is bleak, outdated and suffering from a rising number of vacancies" into one that attracts quality restaurants and family entertainment, Halverson said. "Whether we like it or not, image matters," she said. "It will set the stage for what we will become."

Assessing the options

A key decision is whether to plant trees near the curb or put sidewalks near the curb and plant trees just beyond the sidewalk. The SRF video will display both approaches. The consulting firm also has presented the following pros and cons for each choice.

The first option, planting 260 trees spaced 50 feet apart about 4 feet from the curb, would cost about $4 million if planting were skipped in areas with severe slopes. Planting the trees 4 feet from the curb would have more visual impact on the street. The trees would soften the look of the street and make it appear narrower. In addition, placing the trees closer to the street would move the sidewalk and pedestrians farther from the flow of traffic, SRF said.

But having the trees near the curb carries the higher price tag. Using space close to the street for trees would push the sidewalk farther out, requiring the purchase of two strips of land, on either side of the street, running the entire length of the 2½-mile project. Other cons include the fact that trees close to the curb would make it more difficult to remove snow on the street and sidewalk, SRF said.

The second option, putting the sidewalk closer to the street and planting the same 250 trees 8 to 10 feet from the curb, would cost $1.3 million. This is less expensive because the only additional land needed would be plots to plant trees beside the sidewalk. Removed somewhat from the traffic, the trees would have a better growing environment and sidewalk snow removal would be easier, SRF said.

The drawback to the less expensive option is that the trees would have less visual impact on the street. Pedestrians would be closer to the flow of traffic because the sidewalk, not the trees, would be closer to the street.