Elk River looks to add trees to Orono Parkway medians; prairie’s future in question

by Joni Astrup

Associate editor

Plans are in the works to add trees to the Orono Parkway medians by Elk River City Hall.

The Elk River City Council voted unanimously Monday, Aug. 20, to go out for quotes for the trees. The cost of buying, installing and maintaining the trees is estimated at $13,800.

Native prairie plants now dominate the medians in Elk River’s Orono Parkway, which runs past city hall and the library. Star News file photo

It’s all part of a long-running effort to spruce up the medians now planted with native prairie and address complaints about the prairie being unsightly and obstructing motorists’ views. It also is a component of the city’s beautification goal, one of four city-wide goals identified by the city council in 2010. Beautifying key streetscapes in Elk River is part of that effort.

Elk River Planning Manager Jeremy Barnhart acknowledged early in the discussion at the Aug. 20 council meeting that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

As he put it: “Beauty is defined by everyone differently.”

For the council, beautification clearly means changing the current look of the Orono Parkway medians.

While the prairie will be left in the median for now and trees will be added, more changes could be in store.

Mayor John Dietz favored planting trees, but expressed interest in taking things a step farther by ripping out the prairie completely and replacing it with rocks. The city staff will check into the cost of rock mulch and report back.

“I guess I thought when we started this process that the goal was to get rid of the prairie grass on Orono Parkway,” Dietz said.

The city council had discussed the state of the Orono Parkway medians most recently in May. It was decided then to let the plants grow and take another look at the matter in August. Barnhart said the city staff reviewed sight visibility issues at the three intersections along the parkway in August and identified large areas of prairie which obstruct motorists’ views.

“With this information, it becomes clear that prairie plants are not appropriate in the Orono median unless they are mowed in late July, after they have flowered and they exceed 30 inches (in height),” Barnhard wrote in a memo to the council.

He identified six Orono Parkway median options for the council to consider, ranging from doing nothing at a cost of zero to adding trees and replacing the prairie with rock mulch and irrigated turf grass at an estimated cost of $103,417. The medians are not irrigated now.

Planting trees in the medians and leaving the prairie was Option 2, less costly than options 3-6 but more expensive than doing nothing.

Barnhart had recommended Option 2. He said if he were starting with a new street he wouldn’t put prairie grass in the median but was looking to keep costs down by recommending Option 2.

Council Member Matt Westgaard said he isn’t opposed to the prairie, but given some of the negative feedback and visibility issues, as well as the beautification effort, he questioned if putting in trees is going far enough.

“We’re only talking about very minimial areas within town to beautify and this parkway happens to be one of them. It just seems like leaving what’s there and planting a couple trees is a rather small departure from what we’ve got there now,” Westgaard said.

Barnhart said he’s trying to balance the budget challenges and feels the city could get more bang for its beautification buck by spending money on high-visibility areas like Highway 169 and School Street and Highway 169 and 193rd Avenue versus the limited exposure on the less-traveled Orono Parkway.

Barnhart also said prairie and trees in the Orono medians fit with the rain garden in front of the library, the nearby Oak Savanna Park and “rugged ruralness” of the Sherburne County Fairgrounds at the west end of the parkway.

“All that kind of fits together, whether it’s intended or not,” Barnhart said.

The mayor, meanwhile, said he would not support irrigating the medians, calling that “a total waste of money.”

He wondered why the city can’t just put rock mulch and trees in the medians.

Barnhart said that’s an option. He will research the cost and report back as well as seek quotes for installation of the trees.

Orono Parkway median options

These are the six options for the Orono Parkway medians considered by the Elk River City Council on Aug. 20.

•Option 1: Do nothing and leave the prairie-planted median as it is. The median would be mowed to about 18 inches in height in late July after the prairie blooms. Cost: Zero

•Option 2: Add trees and mow the prairie grasses to about 18 inches in height. Retain recently planted ornamental plants on the end caps of the medians. Estimated cost: $13,800.

•Option 3: Add trees, retain prairie in center (mow in late July), add turf grasses to edges. Requires irrigation. Estimated cost: $82,659.

•Option 4: Add trees and add turf grass to the remaining areas. Requires irrigation. Estimated cost: $95,466.

•Option 5: Add trees, place rock mulch in center, and replace outside areas with turf grass. Requires irrigation. Estimated cost: $103,417.

•Option 6: Add trees, place wood mulch in center, replace outside areas with turf grass. Requires irrigation. Estimated cost: $94,721.