Monthly Archives: March 2009

Heads up, Fernside!

While most trees on the island are blooming with flowers, about a dozen big ones on Fernside Blvd (33rd and 32nd block, both sides) have bloomed with tree removal notices instead. The notices read, most ominously:

The tree may need to be removed as part of the Fernside re-surfacing project to re-establish the curb line, restore the drainage flow line, and minimize ponding problems. At the time of construction, determination of tree removal will be made with the consultation of a licensed arborist. Every effort will be made to retain the tree.

Anyone may protest its removal. Protests must be in writing, stating the reason for said protest, along with the name, address and signature of the person making the protest, and must be postmarked or delivered before April 13, 2009, to the City Engineer, 950 West Mall Square, Room 110, Alameda 94501-7575.
Should you have questions or require further information, contact Trung Nguyen, Assistant Engineer, at (510) 749-5851, Monday thought Thursday, 9 am to 5 pm.

The thought that always comes into my head when I see these things things plastered on a beautiful old tree in a leafy neighborhood is: Why does it look like the city simply has no interest in maintaining whatever remains of its tree-lined, attractive, and livable neighborhoods, but continues to dismantle and downgrade them, even under the guise of improvement? I say that because nothing says “a neighborhood in decline” like one where mature trees are being cut down in bunches. And because this is Fernside, and I’ve seen the kind of street work that afflicted it around Lincoln Middle School and south of it, let me say upfront—no amount of haphazardly slapped concrete, obnoxious striping, and planter boxes with some flowers in them can make up for the loss of a beautiful, broad, old-fashioned street with a stately tree line, like the one endangered here.

But to the issue at hand: Because the notice says the reason for the proposed removal is curb and drainage issues, I went out yesterday and took some pictures of the curb at the tagged trees’ location. (The sidewalks, you can see, are fine, and work has been done on them recently, so they are by no means a hazard). The curbs is where the tree roots have done damage, and I’m sure there are some ponding issues as well (as corroborated by a resident I ran into while taking pictures). But are they any worse than what’s on any other street featuring large trees? No. Similar problems on other streets have been handled successfully by trimming the roots and rebuilding the curb around them. Using this approach to save our mature trees has resulted in precisely the kind of streets the city loves to brag about to out-of-town visitors, put on promotional brochures, and highlight in real estate ads.

Obviously, a compromise is necessary when dealing with old trees and even older infrastructure. What’s important is that trees are considered just as crucial a public benefit as curbs and working culverts. This understanding is explicit in the city’s own comprehensive sidewalk repair program which council adopted back in 2007. Tree removal in this plan is the very last option, topped by many others. We simply can’t afford, both literally and metaphorically, to be taking trees down wholesale any time street or sewage work needs to happen. Because, if we decide that the state of affairs on Fernside is absolutely unacceptable from a curb standpoint, that dooms a good deal of other streets as well. And if we decide that a perfect curb or flawless drainage is more important than a mature urban forest, Alameda will lose—quickly—much of its property appeal and overall charm, and it will become an even bigger heat island and contributor to air quality and global warming issues—something nobody I know is looking forward to.

So what to do?

First things first—protest the removal. The notice clearly says “may, not will be removed” and that “every effort will be made to retain the tree.” I choose to take that at face value at this time. Good thing is, some of the neighbors are firmly behind keeping their trees, and are willing to work with the city for a solution that addresses both the infrastructure problems and keeping the mature trees, using all the tools and methods at Public Works’ disposal. An arborist report should be provided as is routine but I would appeal to the city to focus its effort on working with the neighbors to keep the trees rather than pursuing an opinion slanted towards removal.

Two, attend the meeting to show you really care. Wringing one’s hands and feeling bad is not enough. People need to stand up for the trees or risk bidding them goodbye, along with their shade, wildlife, noise-reducing qualities, and yes, your property value.

To help save the Fernside trees, call and write Public Works using the info on the notice, above. Just so you know, you can protest a tree removal and attend the meeting regardless of where in Alameda you live.


North of Lincoln trees headed south?

Here’s a disturbing thought: What if someone came and cut every single tree on your street overnight? And what if that already happened once, oh, some three years ago, on a street called Park, and what if it’s about to happen again?

This may be one side effect of the North of Lincoln plan, the redevelopment of Park Street north of Lincoln (aka the Gateway district). If earlier practice is any indication, the redevelopment will result in the demise of more than two dozen trees, including these extra gorgeous ones.

How can that be? you ask. The plan clearly embraces trees, along with concepts such as “walkable,” “pedestrian-friendly,” and “attractive to shoppers.” Surely they’ll be planting trees, not cutting them down!

You would think so.

When the first round of Park Street redevelopment between Central Avenue and Lincoln occurred, I was so shocked I called Public Works to find out how the heck could someone clear cut two entire blocks without notice, and in clear violation of the Master Tree Plan. I was told to talk to redevelopment. I tried, and never could quite reach the person they pointed me to. The trees were gone, and there were other more pressing issues at the time, and I did not pursue the contact. But the uncomfortable thought remained—watch out for the sequel! With North of Lincoln plans making a buzz again, it’s timely to ask the question—should the remaining trees be allowed to go?

Of course, my answer is no. Any good tree north of Lincoln needs to stay right where it is. And many more need to be planted.

When I’ve told people how upset I was at the wholesale tree removal on Park Street, I’ve been reminded that the cut trees have been replaced with new ones; that the old trees were “in decline,” “broken,” or “old”; and that the goal is to achieve a uniform “signature” look for the district. I’m not buying any of that. Not every tree was in decline (some, maybe; but rumor has it, some trees were broken on purpose, because they “obscured” store signage—if true, this is not only illegal but also not too smart as studies show that trees are key to attracting shoppers, sometimes even more that signage). The replacement trees are tiny, and three years later they still look like they have just been put in the ground. The choice was poor too: Gingkos are notoriously slow growing; if you want to see what 50-60-year old gingkos look like, visit Thompson Street on the East End—even at this mature age they are by no means “big.”

As far as the uniform look goes, I buy that for an area that has no trees to begin with, where starting from scratch you may choose to go for that uniform look. (Central Avenue is an example as is Burbank Street, and Appezzato Way more recently). But removing healthy living trees to plant matching ones is the epitome of waste, not to mention environmentally irresponsible. Importantly enough, the city’s own current tree consultants recommend tree variety over uniformity, as monocultures are prone to mass extinction in case of a decease. The consultants clearly stated they do not recommend extracting healthy trees to replace them with a different species, and especially not for the purpose of achieving uniformity.

It seems entirely foolish and self-serving to remove mature, healthy trees that cause no problem other than interfere with someone’s idea of what a street should look like. The North of Lincoln plan itself calls for “fast-growing, deciduous trees” on sidewalks to achieve a more attractive, pedestrian-friendly atmosphere. Why remove the ones that already match that description?? The wise, economical, and sustainable thing to do would be to preserve every tree that is alive and doing well north of Lincoln right now, and to plant MORE in all the available spaces (of which there are plenty); to maintain a visually diverse treescape that integrates the existing with the new. The thinking that applies to buildings in the area (mixing historical and new) should certainly apply to trees as well.

Revitalization often happens best when good things are added, not subtracted. This is especially true for trees in places undergoing transformation, because trees take so long to reach an age where their benefit to us is optimal—and some don’t even make it. On Park Street, a few of the young gingkos were broken early on—saplings are hard to care for, especially in a busy walking district—which is why a tree that has made it there should be considered a “keeper.” A good example is downtown Oakland where no mass tree removals had to occur for the area to receive its face lift—old and new trees on Broadway all thrive together, and many more were planted in the pocket parks and streets around downtown. Preserving existing trees is cost effective, too: Removal of a mature tree runs in the thousands of dollars. That’s money that could be spent on public art, or facade improvement.

I am pretty sure the people who decided to remove the trees between Lincoln and Central thought they were doing the street a favor. However, I have since talked to a few of the merchants (south of Central, where the clear-cutting didn’t reach) who said they would prefer to keep their shading trees instead of losing them to saplings they will never see a benefit from. The one large tree by Starbucks in particular gives that corner a definite leg up over Peet’s. You just need to walk by and see where people hang out on a hot day. (Clue: Try the shade.) I can’t imagine why it would be any different north of Lincoln, especially when we’ll be trying to attract shoppers, not chase them to leafier shopping districts. Whatever location a restaurant or merchant is attracted to, a large shade tree in front would only be a plus.

I’ll leave you with a this short research paper that touches on many of the urban tree issues I’ve talked about here and in other posts. (Be sure to look at the picture on page 4, a tree in Savannah, GA.) And when you can, take a stroll down Park Street and see what trees will be lost if things go on as they did under Phase 1. Imagine for yourself how these trees will give a newly spruced up area an immediate head start if they are kept and cared for, instead of thrown in the chipper.

Des clous!

So I wrote a little post a while ago and titled it “Paris, CA” because I was comparing Sacramento (CA) to Paris (France) in terms of their urban forests. You can jump to the post right here. The title was also a nod to the movie Paris, Texas (anybody catch that?) which I haven’t seen in many many years but the name just floated up and I thought I’d play with it. Then this morning on the radio I hear about some tiny town near Los Angeles where people have become so concerned about the lawns of foreclosed homes going brown and ruining the appearance that they’ve taken to spray-painting them green! How Hollywood. And the name of the little town? Paris, CA! Who wudda thunk!

I have no idea why people like to name obscure little towns after major ones (I have a feeling it’s often a person they get named after rather than a bad case of grandomania but you can prove me wrong if you want. Place names is a whole other area of entertainment. My favorite is Okay, OK—”Where nothing ever goes wrong.”) And there isn’t much I could find out about this particular Paris on the web either, except that it’s in the middle of nowhere and it looks really really dry. I do have a tip though for the Parisians there: Trees raise property values at least as much as green lawns—put some tree backdrops! Depending on your population, you can even snatch the tree capital of the world title from…umm… Paris.

Quick and dirty guide to pruning

Aahh… It’s that time of year again: Everything is bursting forth with energy and vigor, and chances are, you feel the same way—alive and eager to get out and do something useful around the yard, work those muscles, sweat a little. And lo, as you rummage in the shed looking for a project, you happen upon the pruning shears: “I know!” says you, “The tree! It sure looks like it can use a trim!”

STOP!—Do you know what you are doing?

Now it’s not to me to dampen your enthusiasm or tell you what to do, but let me tell you what not to do.


These (excuse the terrible picture quality, I have to snap them on the go with whatever camera phone happens to be around) are examples of a REALLY, REALLY BAD “pruning” job. Without disclosing location, the first two images are of a street tree the resident thought was “getting to be too much” and decided to cut back, no doubt with the best of intentions but with this unfortunate result. See the limb cut half way up? Ouch. And the “thumbs” left all over? That’s a no-no folks! And it’s not your job to trim a city tree—call Public Works. Do you really want the liability for mangling public property?

The third picture is a cypress, telling by the leaves that lay around it. Whether the owner meant for it to stay or go is a mystery to me. It did give me the creeps to see it clobbered like this, with the forlorn little bird on top.

At any rate, I thought I’d give you this pruning guide to click through (and share with your chainsaw-happy neighbor) before you reach for the saw and shears next time. There are many guides for many types of trees online; try to find one that specifically addresses what you want to do and to what tree (shape or thin, conifer or willow, etc.). I like this one because it has nice pictures of the inner structure that develops in the branches as a result of certain cuts, and how that affects the strength of the new growth.

And please be careful. Trees are people too, you know.

An ode to dirt

Isn’t it funny how things converge sometimes in the strangest of ways? I’m reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma and dreaming of seas of yellow corn, and checking my food labels to see what on there isn’t made of corn, and then I wake up yesterday morning to hear secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack channeling Michael Pollan on KALW. Was he saying it’s time to rethink agricultural subsidies for large farmers, like those that grow the corn that feeds the cow that takes the antibiotics that end up in the burger that Jack ate? I thought so, unless I was only half awake! That, and the fact that he did brake concrete at the USDA building, albeit not without controversy, and the fact that I’ve been thinking that we live amidst too much concrete like we’ve been placed in a body cast by choice, and that we need more dirt, but not of this kind, rather the kind that turns to mud or sand depending on the season, the kind that water seeps through to the aquifer below, or the kind that things grow out of, whether they be trees or weeds or food gardens. I’m thinking of this because spring has sprung and all kinds of things are in bloom, including some daffodils I didn’t know were napping in my front yard, and all the trees of course, and there’s talk of a victory garden in the empty lot across from City Hall which I think is a super swell idea even though it will have to be in containers because of the contaminated soil underneath, but it’s a start I guess with hopefully more to follow elsewhere.

Did I say “trees”? Speaking of, may I suggest, in the spirit of caring and generosity and all that, that you take a look at the tree in front of your house and see if it’s being choked by weeds, or maybe its stakes need to be straightened up, or maybe someone laid bricks around the base to keep the soil in place and now the bricks are hurting the growing trunk. If you think the tree needs care you can’t provide, such as staking, call your friendly Public Works department and let them know. Chances are, they’ll get to you sooner than you think. What’s important is that you don’t let that tree develop problems that will be harder to correct later. While you are at it, let them know if there is a spot somewhere that has been cemented over, but it used to hold a tree at some point in the past. While listing (and unpaving and replanting) such spots is part of the Master Tree Plan, giving PW a heads up may get you VIP priority you can brag about to your neighbors.

Speaking of un-cementing spots, I came across this neat website, from Portland again (these people are always ahead in the game). Warning: Do not attempt such work without the city’s approval, unless it’s on your property of course. Even so, calling 811 before you dig is a good idea.

Now go get dirty.

Thankfully Friday

I know the Oscars are over but bear with me just the same…I have a few thanks to offer:

I want to thank CASA‘s Food And Water Committee for helping Schools Go Green and tree growers in the city come together for what’s turning out to be a very enthusiastic and catching tree planting campaign. Both fruit trees (thank you Alameda Point Collaborative) and shade trees were made available to schools, and now it’s just a matter of alleviating the concerns of the school district’s maintenance office about student safety, and receiving their blessing for the plantings. The office was concerned that fruiting trees attract “honey bees, yellow jackets, flies, wasps, as well as rodents who like fruit particularly rats and raccoons” and that this may “pose a serious threat to our students, staff and the public using our facilities.” Hmmm… Good thing, one of our local teachers whose school already has a garden with fruit trees and other fruiting plants wrote a very thoughtful reply to that, in which she basically said that in her experience, with proper care such problems are minimal to none, and that the lessons taught—about where food comes from, curiosity about new edible plants, and the science, math and language lessons that come with all that—far outweigh the dangers posed by pollinating insects, such as the endangered honey bee. I am confident (or very hopeful) that the district will give a thought to this and take a less harsh view of fruit trees, especially if they take a tour of some of the gardens already in existence and see how happy and thriving the students are and how much they learn from their experience.
I want to thank our Park Manager, John MacDonald, for agreeing to plant several new shade trees in Krusi Park. John is extremely knowledgeable about trees and has a great institutional memory of what used to be where and when and why it got lost. There used to be a giant sequoia near Krusi’s baseball field, cut down in the 90s, he says—anyone remember that? I don’t. The only giant sequoias I know are in Franklin Park, including the granddaddy of them all, near the bathrooms, with the bark all smooth from generations of kids climbing it. But back to Krusi…Getting more shade has been an ongoing project for the park and Otis school community and looks like we are filling now all spots where trees were taken out in the past. (A little Lorax tip: If you live near a park, or care about one and think that it can use more trees, John is your guy. Planting time is right now, so get on the ball. If you want to lend a hand with tree planting, at parks or otherwise, I’m assembling a tree planting volunteer list—email to get on it.)

Whew, this is getting to be a real Oscars thank you rant…one more:
I want to thank A-Plus tree trimming service which is working on trees in Zone 4, east of Broadway, right now. Even though I get nervous every time I see that chipper truck parked somewhere, I have to say that so far, the job they’ve done has been very good. They seem to have the right touch: They prune lightly and they take their time selecting what to leave and what to take out so as not to hurt the structure of the tree. I hope these guys stick around. If you see them, and if you think they are doing a great job, do smile and say thank you. Or send them a note—they love that.

OK, I’m done. Happy Friday everyone. Thank you academy…

Oops, they’ve done it again. And again. And again…

Hey, it was a big tree week in the newspapers last week. There was this piece, talking about protected trees in Alameda, and then this letter (“Trees reflect their city,” all the way down the page) which was right spot on.

On the subject of protected trees, I want to state the obvious, which is that the rash of illegal removals is not going to stop until there is a serious penalty applied to those who do such unconscionable act. Letting someone with a tree grudge who’s bent on getting rid of the “nuisance” know that what he is about to do is illegal, without any consequence, is about as as effective as waving a feather at an Orc. What kind of penalty? A stiff one. I say, the cost of replacing the tree, multiplied by the age of the tree they cut or damaged. For a 60-year-old tree, that would be $300 x 60 = 18,000. Let them sweat that. A friend told me her neighbor hacked an oak tree to death a few years ago. When she called to complain, the city said, sorry, they couldn’t do anything after the fact. Hello! This is not how you protect something you say you really care about.

Regarding the letter by Joel Rambaud complaining about the terrible pruning job done on the ash trees along Broadway—I agree completely. The terrible job is especially obvious now, with the leaves gone. They say the trees are in decline—I submit it’s in large part because of overpruning. Some tree trimming quack decided at some point that a trees needs just 4 or 5 branches, and that these need to be shaved clean of all growth. The result is something that looks more like an arthritic witch’s hand, than a lush living organism. The term for this ignorant practice—leaving a bare branch with a tuft at the end—is “lion’s tail trimming.” It’s a no-no acording to all pruning books; to see it all over Broadway is outright criminal. As if this is not enough, some of the trees have also been “topped”—a practice roundly condemned by every urban forestry manual and one our city claims is banned here also. Yet, here it is

—a proof that what the city says it does, it doesn’t do or can’t enforce. Were these tree pruners paid, or fined and reported to their certifying agency? I really want the latter to be the case. Why can’t the work of pruning contractors be subject to approval by Public Works, and the company paid only if they do the job according to the city’s guidelines? This is city property after all, a public investment! Defacing it should be treated on par with other vandalism, like graffiti. Both of the above cases are matters of policy—the Master Tree Plan we’ve spent so much money and energy on, without sound policy and enforcement, would be a sorry waste of the pulp it took to print it.

The trees on Broadway may yet recover from their lion’s tails, if left alone right now. I’ve also elicited a promise by Public Works to fill many of the gaps along this once gorgeous street with species from the new tree plan. My hope is, this will be accompanied by changes in our code along the lines suggested, so what we sow today won’t be squandered out of incompetence, but we (or our children) can reap the benefits for many years.