The meeting at the House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul was billed as informational, another chance to inform opinions regarding a proposed regional trail linking Summit Avenue by bicycle to other major trails.
But if the composition of the packed community room Monday night was any indication, it would be hard to find anyone who remains uncommitted — either to opposing the trail or championing it. And the sides seem firmly entrenched.
Ben Swanson-Hysell and his young daughter wore their bicycle helmets during the meeting. Toting a "Let's Build a Safer Summit" sign, Swanson-Hysell said he is an unabashed fan of the plan to put separated one-way bicycle lanes down both sides of the historic street.
"I'm excited about an improved bicycle facility down Summit, a place where I love to bike. But it doesn't feel like a safe place in its current form," he said. "I'd feel much more comfortable on separated facilities."
So too, he said, would be cyclists of all abilities too intimidated to use the current in-street bike lanes.
Chris Schirber, a 30-year Summit resident who bikes daily, said he's open to being swayed either way. Then he proceeded to lay out several reasons he opposes the plan, which has been recommended by city Public Works and Parks and Recreation planners.
While Schirber agrees that Summit Avenue and its century-old infrastructure need to be rebuilt, he also agrees with the citizens group Save Our Street, which says as many as 1,000 trees could be at risk.
"I think we've got a gem," Schirber said. "And if we mess that up, there's no going back."
At the heart of the debate is not whether the bone-rattling Summit roadway needs to be rebuilt. Most of the folks who live on Summit and those who regularly use it agree it needs work.
The disagreement is over whether St. Paul should replace its decades-old painted bike lanes with a separated, raised trail running in the street's existing right of way. At the same time Public Works considers what to do with Summit's crumbling roadbed, 100-year-old sewers and buried gas and water lines, Parks and Recreation is using state money to explore a new east-west trail to better link the region's bicycling system.
While no money has been budgeted for either Summit's estimated $100 million rebuild or a new regional trail, city officials say the time to hammer out an overall plan is now — even though the project could be a decade away.
A completed trail plan would allow the city to apply for financial help to build the trail. One possibility to pay for the sewer, water, gas line and road portions of a coordinated project could be a recently proposed expansion of the sales tax paid in St. Paul.
A master plan is scheduled to have a public hearing before the city's Parks and Recreation Commission in March, before being reviewed by the City Council in April. In June, the Metropolitan Council will do the same.
Trees at risk: Whom to believe?
For members of the Save Our Street camp, many of whom held up signs that said "Not true" whenever city officials talked about their shared desire to protect trees while working on the trail's proposed design, the question comes down to whom they believe. Apparently, that's not the city.
Save Our Street has obtained more than 2,400 signatures on a petition opposing the plan and wants the city to pass a tree-protection ordinance before trail planning continues. According to the arborists the group hired, a new trail would jeopardize more than 1,000 of Summit's 1,500 trees.
"I am absolutely not in favor of this plan," said lifelong Summit resident Mary McGuire Lynch. "I think it's an excessive spending of money. They're ruining one of the prettiest streets in the country. And it's just another example of the city not listening to its residents."
Trail supporters and city staff members say Save Our Street's estimates are wildly inflated. The number of trees at risk is more like 200, they say, and no higher than those threatened by normal street reconstruction projects.
Mitra Jalali, a council member who represents the Hamline-Midway area of St. Paul, said it's becoming increasingly clear that Summit needs a complete overhaul no matter what kind of bike trail is put in place. And she said she's more inclined to believe city staff members' assertion — based on several previous projects — that a much smaller number of trees is at risk.
"I can't deal with hypotheticals. I can deal with all the information that we have," Jalali said. "And all of our technical experts, the people who do this for a living, are saying, 'Yes, there will be some loss, but the goal is to preserve the majority of the canopy.' "