West St. Paul is using an unusual tool to decide where to plant boulevard trees along W. Robert Street: animation showing what the street will look like when its $22 million makeover is finished.

SRF consultants prepared the video to assist City Council members with a difficult decision about how much to spend on boulevard trees and where to plant them when the three-year reconstruction is finished, said Sean Jergens, an SRF landscape architect.

Seeing options in three dimensions can help the council decide whether it’s worth the money, he said.

The rebuilt street will have a center median, left-turn lanes and landscaping in some median locations and on both sides, Jergens said. “Until you see it, I think it’s hard for the public to appreciate or understand what it looks like. You can show a lot more in an animation than you can with a plain view” drawing.

Using Hollywood-style software, the video takes viewers down the street as if they were behind the wheel of a car. The view goes up and down with the dips and hills on Robert and shows how the street would look with trees planted every 50 feet in two locations: 4 feet from the curb or back from the street beyond the sidewalk.

“It really is a high-quality, realistic, pretty accurate final product,” Jergens said.

Council members watched the animation closely multiple times and could see a marked difference between the two tree treatments. Planted 4 feet from the curb, trees made the four-lane street look narrower and more inviting. Trees planted back from the street along the outer line of the sidewalk gave the street an open, more industrial look.

Videos are usually produced for larger road projects, Jergens said. The Minnesota Department of Transportation, for example, orders animations for big bridge projects, and SRF is working on one now for the Winona Bridge. It will show how the bridge will look from the historic downtown, what the view of the river will be from the bridge and how the span will fit into the community, Jergens said.