A proposed multi-use regional trail now under consideration for St. Paul's historic Summit Avenue faces mounting opposition from area residents concerned it will gobble up green space and lead to a loss of trees.
"Summit Avenue is a huge resource for the city," said Katherine Cairns, a longtime Summit resident who now lives a block south, on Grand Avenue. "How do we protect that resource?... Let's take a look at other options."
That's all it is right now — an option, said city officials. Parks and Recreation planners are currently creating a master plan for the corridor that runs from the Mississippi River to downtown St. Paul.
The master plan, expected to be completed by early fall, "will evaluate opportunities, constraints and feasibility of a regional trail facility within the corridor and will serve as a guide to future transportation, pedestrian and parkway improvements," according to the project overview on a city's website.
Mary Norton, a city landscape architect with Parks and Recreation, said it makes sense to explore a regional trail on Summit. The avenue is heavily used by bicyclists, runners and walkers. It's also wider than other area east-west streets, ranging from 100 feet wide on the eastern segment of the street to 200 feet from Lexington Parkway west to the river.
There now is no off-street direct connection between the river and downtown St. Paul and the Sam Morgan Regional Trail, Norton said. This project explores creating an off-street regional trail for people of all ages and abilities, she said.
Right now, Norton said, officials are only working on the master plan, which has been funded with state money through the Metropolitan Council. No money has been budgeted for construction. A completed master plan would allow the city to apply for financial help to build a trail along Summit Avenue's five miles.
She said planners are working to stay within the avenue's current footprint and "we are very much interested in preserving greenspace."
Planners also "are not looking at going through the middle of the median" — the famous tree-lined "islands" of grass between Lexington to the river, she said.
Many area residents, who would like the city to focus instead on smoothing Summit's notoriously bone-rattling, pot-holed roadway and repainting its existing bike lanes, question whether building a trail while preserving the avenue's aesthetics is even possible.
Gary Todd, who lives near Summit and Dale and is a member of the Summit Avenue Residential Preservation Association, said he has yet to find any neighbors who support the plan.
"Basically, we're talking about 12 feet of new pavement here. Where are you going to put that?" he said of a trail that would be separated from the roadway and protected by a divider. "If you want to improve safety on summit? Improve the road."
The idea that constructing an even more heavily used trail than what exists now is dubious at best, Todd said. He recently walked the street and counted 164 walkways, 84 driveways, 36 cross streets intersecting with Summit — all places where vehicles, pedestrians and bicycles could clash.
"[A trail] does not appear to increase safety for pedestrians or bicyclists," he said. "Why would they damage a city treasure."
Another of opponents' concerns is the potential loss of parking along the 5-mile road.
City officials acknowledged that if they are to preserve Summit Avenue's green space, they may have to restrict parking to one side. During her decades living on Summit, Cairns said she cared for disabled family members. Restricting parking to one side of the already busy street could put people with limited mobility in danger if they are forced to cross the street to get to and from their cars, she said.
"It's kind of a Sophie's Choice, the question of preserving trees versus preserving parking," Cairns said. "Do you bring a person with a walker across two lanes of traffic in order to get to the other side of the street?"
Bob Cattanach and Allyson Hartle live in one of the avenue's oldest houses, not far from the Cathedral of St. Paul. Avid cyclists, they nonetheless dispute the idea that a new trail would be an improvement over what is currently there.
"Also, they haven't looked at anything other than Summit Avenue," Hartle said. "They could use it in areas that make a lot more sense."
When Cattanach said he's asked officials about other potential routes, "crickets ... I think that's a fatal flaw — just from a process perspective."
He added, "They're so hell-bent on this route and getting it done. But it's not working and the facts will bear it out."
In a letter to city officials and the news media, Summit Hill resident Marilyn Bach said the entire process feels rushed, with much of it happening outside public view. Considering that a regional trail will "dramatically impact the historic character and welcoming tree-lined nature of Saint Paul's storied Summit Avenue," Bach said more public discussion is needed.
St. Paul Parks and Recreation will hold a public information session on Monday, June 6, via Zoom, and the public needs to preregister.
On Sunday, volunteers with Save Our Summit will be in Overlook Park, 418 Summit Ave., starting at 10 a.m., with an information table, handing out flyers and collecting signatures for a petition. The group has launched a website, www.savesummitavenue.org.
Cairns said she hopes the public weighs in Monday and can give city officials better options.
"The more ideas we can get, the better it will be," she said.