Fourth Street reconstruction puts picturesque maples in peril
Myrna Matheson can hardly imagine her home of nearly 50 years devoid of the stately maples standing sentry out front. And she’s not about to watch quietly as plans are laid to cut them down along with nearly 200 more shade trees that line Fourth Street in Duluth.
But St. Louis County Engineer Steve Krasaway says he has little choice but to remove the trees in order to reconstruct a 2-mile stretch of the road and upgrade the water and sewer lines that run beneath it. Some of those utility lines date back to the late 1800s and are undersized or crumbling.
Krasaway pointed out that many of the mature trees are planted right against the curb and undoubtedly will be disturbed by the 4-foot-deep excavation required for the project from Sixth Avenue East to Wallace Avenue, slated to begin in 2016.
“The bigger the tree, the bigger the roots,” he said.
Kelly Fleissner, Duluth’s city forester and maintenance operations manager, agreed that most of the trees are unlikely to survive the project, which will involve digging at least a foot beyond the existing curb line and replacing sidewalks, as well as many service lines to homes.
“We’re looking at excavation on two if not three sides of many of these trees, and based on my experience of more than 20 years, there will be so much root damage that we’re going to lose the majority of those trees, if not all of them, on this project,” he said.
Matheson contends the trees are being written off prematurely.
“I think they’re so focused on ensuring the efficiency of this project that they can’t be troubled to consider the sentimental value of our trees,” she said. “It’s as though they have no concern for even trying to save the trees.”
In protest, Matheson, 83, has posted a “Condemned” sign on one of the trees in front of her house.
She also has used old clothing to create figures she calls “tree huggers” on the boulevard strip.
Ann Redelfs, another Fourth Street resident, also is lobbying for the preservation of boulevard trees.
“I don’t think it’s possible to put a price on those trees,” she said. “They’re so valuable, it’s difficult to describe. They provide shade and create a feeling of community. It’s such an enjoyable and beautiful street that I’d hate to see it ruined.”
No easy solutions
Duluth City Councilor Joel Sipress, who represents the city’s 2nd District and also lives on Fourth Street, said there are no easy solutions.
“As sad as I am at the prospect of losing our trees, we really have no choice but to do this project,” he said. “The utility lines, including the water main, are very old and in need of replacement. The utility lines can’t be replaced without totally reconstructing the street, which is what puts the trees at risk.”
Fleissner said attempting to work around the trees could prove foolish, considering the nearly inevitable root damage that will occur.
“We could wind up with a lot of unsafe trees and trees that would likely die shortly after the project is completed,” he said.
Sipress said the county and city will make the best they can of a difficult situation.
“The city administration has asked the engineers to look at all reasonable options for saving trees,” he said. “Due to the amount of root damage that will result from the total reconstruction, it will be difficult to save trees, particularly the oldest and largest trees, which are most at risk from root damage.
“I believe that the city administration is open to exploring any reasonable method to save trees, and I will push for that throughout the development of the project, but we need to be realistic that even in the best-case scenario, relatively few trees are likely to survive,” he said.
Plans to replant
Krasaway has pledged to replant two trees for every one that’s removed from Fourth Street. He plans to use a mixture of species, planting trees that are 10-15 feet tall with trunks measuring 2-2½ inches in diameter.
“The whole corridor will be fully planted with trees,” he said, noting that parts of Fourth Street that currently lack trees will be improved in the process.
Matheson finds little consolation in the proposed replantings.
“With those little puny things they plan to put in, I’ll probably never live to see them amount to anything,” she said.
Redelfs fears that Fourth Street stripped of mature trees will have the feel of Glenwood Street following its recent reconstruction. She predicts the open road will tempt motorists to drive at dangerous speeds.
Krasaway estimates that reconstructing Fourth Street will cost more than $6 million and new utilities could add another $2 million to $3 million to the equation.
He said about $5 million in federal funding already has been earmarked for the project, and the county has set aside another $1 million.
The street is a county road, but after it is improved, St. Louis County plans to hand over control of it to the city of Duluth.
A portion of the cost of the new road probably will be assessed against benefiting properties, but Krasaway said it’s too early to know how large those assessments will be.
Before the project can move forward, the Duluth City Council will need to sign off on it, and a public hearing on the proposed work probably will occur next year, Krasaway said.
He said work on the road would probably begin in 2016, and the project would occur in two phases, with a final completion date in 2017.
The proposed new road would include 6-foot-wide designated bicycle lanes in both directions, but Krasaway said it would add no more than a foot to the total width of the existing street.
Redelfs encouraged the city to take whatever steps it can to preserve the trees along Fourth Street to remain true to its claim to being “the best outdoors town” in America, as it was recently designated by Outdoors magazine.
“I would like to believe that as a community, we could do the right thing and set an example for the rest of the country,” she said.