Robert Street project split into two phases

This concept design shows what Robert Street’s sidewalks may look like following direction from the city council to split the work in to a separate project from road reconstruction. (submitted photo)

Essential road construction will continue as planned; sidewalk and trees will wait

Road reconstruction for West St. Paul’s Robert Street project remains on track, but aesthetic components such as paver-lined sidewalks, streetlights and trees intended to revitalize the corridor will likely be spun off into a follow-up project, according to the design team.

The move to sever the two components of the largest project in city history is intended to help the city take time to plan the streetscape (sidewalk) phase without delaying the street reconstruction plans — a delay that could jeopardize $7 million in federal funding.

While the deadline for federal approval is not until June 30, the plans must first pass the Minnesota Department of Transportation. MnDOT has stipulated the city must complete all necessary property acquisitions and submit the project plans by March 31 if expects to earn state approval by June.

Road reconstruction plans are currently on pace to meet these deadlines, but after reviewing designs in late November the city council expressed a desire for more substantive action on the streetscape revisions. Representatives from SRF Consulting Group, the primary contractor for the Robert Street project, told the council at its Dec. 16 work session that it would nearly impossible to complete all the preliminary work for expanded streetscape project in the same timeframe.

Wish list

Many of the revisions to the streetscape concepts will focus on the role of trees, specifically quantity and placement. Concept designs modeling the council’s requested changes move the trees from the outside of the sidewalk to the inside, between pedestrians and traffic, at intervals of 50 feet.

Other amenities in the concept designs include lighted street signs and walkways that feature a blend of colored concrete and pervious pavers, with a landscaping buffer between the walkway and businesses.

Dave Hutton, a project manager with SRF, explained at the Dec. 16 work session that revising the streetscape plans would be difficult in the tight timeframe allotted for street reconstruction. Beyond finalizing the designs and cost estimates, the new concepts will take more space from curb to outside edge. Because of this, the city will have to acquire additional right-of-way easements from businesses — a process that would likely involve lengthy negotiations and added expense.

Tackling the streetscape portion as a separate phase means the city will need to make provisions for pedestrians in the interim due to MnDOT regulations. This means the city will need to construct a temporary asphalt sidewalk to accommodate pedestrians during construction, which would eventually be removed to make way for the permanent walkway and landscaping.

No phase left behind?

Council member Jenny Halverson expressed concern about splitting the project, saying she feared moving ahead on the road construction without defining the details of the streetscape portion first might doom the second phase to afterthought status.

“In my mind, that’s just as important as the first (phase),” Halverson said. “I cannot move forward with Phase 1 if I don’t know what’s going to happen in Phase 2.”

Some council members cautioned that such staunch advocacy for the second phase, while understandable, could undermine the essential road repairs. Of particular concern were a pair of condemnations the council was set to vote on in its regular meeting that night; without approval at the council’s sole December meeting there would be insufficient time to complete the processes before MnDOT’s March 31 deadline. (Both measures did pass.)

“I get, Jenny, what you’re saying, and I understand that,” Council member David Wright said. “But if we don’t move this forward, forget it. We’re done talking about this after tonight. And I don’t think that’s acceptable to anyone.”

Council member Dave Napier voiced a similar sentiment, saying the need to advance the road reconstruction project toward federal funding goals took precedent in his opinion.

“To me, doing nothing right now — not doing this project — is not even an option,” Napier said.

Following through

In an interview, City Manager Matt Fulton affirmed Halverson’s stance that the streetscape project should be considered more than cosmetic flourishes. Fulton explained that while the road reconstruction is important from an infrastructure standpoint, a well-designed streetscape will be critical to the economic viability of the Robert Street corridor in that it will attract both business investors and shoppers.

“That’s the area we have the greatest potential for redevelopment,” Fulton said.

Fulton added he believes the council’s continued emphasis on the streetscape portion signals good things for the corridor’s future.

“I think the conclusion that I certainly took away from the (Dec. 16) conversation that they’re coming up with a space that everyone can be proud of,” Fulton said.

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