Opinion editor's note: The following article was submitted on behalf of several people who live near Cleveland Avenue in St. Paul or Falcon Heights. Their names are listed at the end of the article.


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For all the grumbling about politicians, the truth is that they're likely to contend with more hard choices in one day than most of us will wrestle with in a year. Case in point: The question of how to redesign St. Paul's Cleveland Avenue on the edge of the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus.

Should the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners remake the relatively quiet two-way street to include two bike lanes, a family bike trail, parking bays and a wider roadway? Among the positives: Federal government money will pay about 80% of this ambitious project. Construction workers will be put to work. There will be a kind of bike lane for anyone on two wheels.

So what's the rub? Those construction workers will fell more than 150 trees to make room for all this asphalt. Many of the trees are over 100 years old. One towering oak sprouted from an acorn 200 years ago, back when James Monroe was president, Florida had just been bought from Spain and Johnny Appleseed was planting orchards out east.

When first presented to the community, the trade-off for the new roadway included clearing 56 trees. More calculations within the county's engineering department led to a near-tripling of the original number, though no one was told about the increase until the construction was about to start in late April.

That a small forest of trees should be whacked within the city ignores the moment in which we live. Not so long ago it was Dutch elm disease deforesting St. Paul. These days it's emerald ash borers that are denuding the streets. To drive down a clear-cut St. Paul street, even when you know it is necessary because the trees are diseased, can be an appalling experience. To travel a naked street and know that healthy trees were downed to make way for more pavement calls into question whether the county planners have stopped to think about the environment they are apparently willing to create.

Trees shade the streets and cool the city. They add a profound note of beauty. Rest assured that no one will ever write the poem that declares, "I think that I will never see a stretch of tar as lovely as a tree."

When explaining the wild increase in the number of trees that will get clobbered, officials acknowledged that they had done a poor job of informing the community about the metastasized growth of the project. Neighbors were given no opportunity to add their own ideas until it was too late to substantially alter the terms of contracts that had already been awarded for this year. To do so, neighbors were informed, would lead to expensive settlement fees.

Officials promised, "Hey, we were wrong, but it won't happen again" — a dubious claim if you believe that people generally do the things they think they can get away with.

As residents of the St. Anthony Park neighborhood, we propose that county officials make the hard choice.

Do more than admit you were wrong to cut neighbors out of the decisionmaking process as the details became clear. Acknowledge that leveling the Cleveland Avenue glade is an idea out of touch with the realities of the climate-challenged future. Face the fact that the trees will be gone forever, but no one really knows what the facts of urban transportation will be in five years, let alone 20.

It's time to stop this project — not forever, just for now. It's time to rethink it, with the help of the people who will have to live most intimately with the consequences. It's a hard choice. But it's one that public officials signed up for when they took the job.

Those signing this article include Nina Archabal, Susan Barnes Elliott, Chuck Dayton, Sara Evans, Tom Fisher, state Rep. Alice Hausman, Margot Monson, Ann Stout, James Stout and Ann Wynia.