To the folks who live in St. Paul's St. Anthony Park, rebuilding Cleveland Avenue is long overdue. Roughened by years of patched potholes and with sections missing curb and gutter, neighbors agree the arterial road needs a major overhaul.
But many are livid at Ramsey County's plans to soon start clearing 160 healthy trees along the project — some of them a century old. In 2019, the county stated that 50 to 60 trees would likely have to go.
"It's kind of like death by a thousand cuts," said Pat Thompson, chair of the St. Anthony Park Community Council's Transportation Committee. "All in the name of progress."
Kathryn Murray, the council's executive director who sent a letter asking the county to adjust its plans, said losing so many mature trees is especially galling as climate change's impact is being increasingly felt. Neighbors hope some of the trees can be saved, she said.
"We had really hoped to end up with a street that would set an example for the rest of St. Paul about what a climate-friendly project looked like," Murray said. "I don't think this is it."
County officials acknowledged they could have done a better job communicating changes to the plan. The pandemic prevented larger public meetings, they said. But property owners were not left in the dark.
"We met with every property owner along Cleveland," said Nick Fischer, project manager for Ramsey County.
The $9.2 million project is expected to begin in mid-May and last through fall 2023. It will be done in two phases, with the first phase going from Como Avenue to Buford Avenue in 2022 and from Buford to Larpenteur Avenue in 2023. Cleveland Avenue will be closed between Como and Buford from late May through fall 2022.
Few residents are arguing against improving this stretch of Cleveland. Not only is the road in need of an overhaul, but much of the sewer and water service in the area near the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus is 100 years old.
Much of that work requires a wider path be cleared than is usual for a simple street reconstruction, officials said.
Removing trees is necessary to prepare for construction, which will replace sanitary sewer, water main, storm sewer and stormwater treatment lines. In addition, the county will build new sidewalks and a new separated trail. Parking niches will be created on the west side of the road in some segments. Bike lanes will be painted along both sides of Cleveland.
On Wednesday, county officials said that some trees are being removed as a result of property owners deciding to replace sewer and water lines — or install stormwater treatment — knowing that trees would be lost as a result.
"That was the property owner's decision," Fischer said.
For example, after consulting with arborists at the university, it was decided to regrade and install sidewalks and retaining walls near a wooded area by the U just south of Larpenteur, Fischer said. But that also means the loss of 71 trees, he said.
Fischer said the county is also working to mitigate the loss of trees in different ways. Workers will replant 55 boulevard trees, he said. In addition, the county will plant 74 shrubs and 119 Minnesota native flowers. A large new raingarden, near Como Avenue, and a couple filtration areas will help improve runoff water quality, he said.
But resident Michael Russelle said the county should take a harder look at whether so many mature trees need to go. A soil scientist and co-chair of the community council's Environment Committee who has lived in the neighborhood since 1982, Russelle said the impact of losing so many trees means alternatives should be explored.
"I think everybody understands that Cleveland needs to be rebuilt, no question," he said. "But there's a big issue of removing so much habitat [for birds and insects]. And, in a time of climate change, mature trees have more of an impact on carbon. If we want to achieve our climate goals, we would pay special attention to our mature trees and protect them."
Is it truly necessary to take down all 160 trees this year, he asked, since the project will be completed in two phases? Or could new water and sewer be installed in ways that don't require wide trenches? At the heart of it all, Russelle said, is a desire for more evaluation.
Margot Monson, an entomologist and resident who first noticed the pink paint marking doomed trees last week, said she's walked Cleveland "almost every day of my life. I was just shocked when I heard about it."
She added: "It doesn't seem forward-thinking to me, to remove all those trees."
In a project update posted online, the county acknowledged that initial communications with neighbors, in 2018 and 2019, estimated that 50 to 60 trees would be removed. But as the project went through a more detailed design and engineering process in 2020 and 2021 — and as additional utility replacements were added to the project — the number of trees swelled to 160.
"We recognize this is disappointing news," the update stated. "We'll work with contractors to identify any additional trees that can be preserved during the construction process."
On Wednesday, John Mazzitello, Ramsey County's deputy director of public works, said the county could have done a better job communicating the evolution of its plans with the community.
"We recognize we need to be better in the future," he said. "And we will be better in the future."