The of many in Alameda last October, when nearly all the trees on two long blocks of Park Street downtown were cut down, was something to behold.
I happened to be on the street about mid-day on that Thursday and it is not an exaggeration to say the people on the street were dazed, walking around the once-familiar blocks between Central and San Jose, gazing up in dismay, looking down at the tree grinders in shock.
"Do you know why they are cutting down all these trees?" asked Maria Weathersbee, 64, who was out doing errands. "It's going to be too hot! We need all the trees we can get! You can't replace a tree."
"Because every town in America wants to have a treeless main street," remarked another passerby.
REACTION WAS FAST AND FURIOUS
The traffic and comments that came through to Alameda Patch on were notable for their anger and volume. I sat at my computer and watched the search queries come through: "What happened to trees on Park Street" people typed into Google. "Park Street trees gone why?" they asked the Internet.
As the days went on, the anger and frustration flared in many ways — in the form of notes on trees, , . It culminated in an online petition asking for changes to the way public works projects are implemented.
The petition called for more accountability from the Public Works Department, more opportunities for community input in the planning stages of projects, and, very specifically, for 20 percent of the trees used in replanting Park Street to be "mature."
"Mature" wasn't clearly defined, but the consistent feedback by those angry about the tree removal, both at a and in a city-sponsored , was that they wanted the new trees that were planted to be as large as possible, in order to return the street to its former look and feel as quickly as possible.
the small ginkgoes on Park Street on other side of Central Avenue, where the trees were replanted in 2006 after the first phase of the Park Streetscape Plan, as examples of what they did not want going forward.
THE VOTE AND DISCUSSION
At the Feb. 21, 2012, City Council meeting, City of Alameda Public Works Director Matt Naclerio presented a plan to council that called for 20 percent of the Park Street replacement trees to be slightly larger — those that come in 36-inch containers instead of 24-inch ones — for an additional cost of $12,000.
Naclerio said he and his staff selected the 36-inch size container because, according to their report, that is the largest size of tree recommended for urban planting. "There needs to be enough physical area to insert the boxed tree while providing a sufficient growing area for the tree to establish itself," the staff report read.
The cost of $12,000 was from funds specifically earmarked for transportation-related projects. In the same plan, Naclerio also asked council for more dollars for additional parking kiosks, at a cost of $41,000, and additional bicycle racks, at a cost of $25,000.
The funds for all three modifications of the Streetscape Plan were not general fund dollars, but rather from special funds with specific constraints. Measure B dollars, from a half-cent county-wide sales tax, were for the trees, while funding for the parking kiosks and bike racks was from two parking-related special funds.
The discussion of the changes to the streetscape plan appeared on the agenda after an item about cuts to social services in the city. The council's discussion of the replacement trees centered largely on cost.
Former mayor and now-councilmember Beverly Johnson repeatedly questioned the value of planting larger trees.
“Twelve thousand isn’t a lot of money, but we could do something else with $12,000," Johnson said. "Is it really going to make that significant of a difference?" Johnson asked city engineer Barbara Hawkins, who presented the Public Works Department's plan.
"What we hear from the businesses and the residents was that they felt the trees defined the character of the neighborhood, and so we're trying to reestablish that as quickly as we can," answered Hawkins.
“For a little bit bigger tree, is it really worth spending that extra $12,000 dollars?” Johnson persisted. "I didn’t get any complaints about the trees from the prior phases of the streetscape plan.”
Councilmember Tam seemed to agree. "I’m having a little bit of a consternation juxtaposing our discussion this evening on the trees and the additional cost allocation that's being requested and the one we just had about people not being able to put food on the table or not having safety net programs," Tam said. "I'd like the city manager to help provide a very brief primer on how these funds are constrained."
The city manager, John Russo, replied that Measure B dollars and parking fund dollars could not be simply transfered to other uses like social services. "The money that is being requested for this contract amendment comes from funds that are set aside for these type of projects," Russo said. "You couldn’t use the parking meter fund to do social services.”
There was also a good deal of discussion about what other projects the $12,000 could be used for. "What are we displacing by allocating Measure B funds to the trees?" Tam asked, wondering if the dollars could be used to fund, for example, paratransit programs.
City staff said no. The money could be used for sidewalks or bus shelters though, Hawkins said.
The Measure B funds slated for the larger trees were from a reserve account, Naclerio told the council, but if the dollars were to be used for another purpose it would likely be for sidewalks.
"Sure I’d like to plant bigger trees, too, but we have dangerous sidewalks all over the city," Johnson said. "And we’re going to spend $12,000 dollars when we could be fixing sidewalks on slightly bigger trees? That doesn’t make sense to me."
Vice Mayor Rob Bonta asked about the petition signers, those who'd asked that 20 percent of the trees used in replanting Park Street be "mature."
"Are they on board with the decision to plant 36-inch boxes instead of 24-inch boxes?" Bonta asked. "There may have been an anticipation that they have fully mature trees."
"There are over four hundred people who signed the petition," Naclerio said. "It's unclear what 'mature' tree means." But, said Naclerio, the city's consulting arborists said that the largest tree appropriate for the project is one with a 36-inch box — and that is what his department based its recommendation on.
"We felt that in trying to meet the spirit of the petition, a 36-inch box was the best way to do that," Naclerio said.
Johnson again expressed concerns about cost. "We're down to the point in our budgeting process where we can't have everything we want," she said. "There is no extra money so these dollars can be put to other use. Probably the kiosks, that makes sense to spend the $41,000 extra. But I think I would still prefer to stick with the 24-inch trees and let them grow."
PARK STREET BUSINESS ASSOCIATION EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR WEIGHS IN
Despite the outcry that cutting down the Park Street trees caused late last year, only two people were present to address the council about the issue. The first, long-time Executive Director Robb Ratto, spoke against planting larger trees on Park Street.
"I’ve been instructed by my board to come and ask you to put in smaller trees," Ratto said. "I would remind the council members — most of you who were not council members when the first original streetscape process started — [that] one of the objectives of the streetscape was to put in smaller trees because it is a business district. It’s not a national park, and we want people to be able to see storefronts and see signage, and that’s a very important part of my membership. Do we want the trees? Absolutely, but we’re going to ask for smaller trees."
Good government advocate Jon Spangler also spoke in support of smaller trees, arguing that the dollars would be better spent on repair of sidewalks, benefiting those with disabilities or others who have difficulty navigating uneven surfaces.
ONE VOTE FOR LARGER TREES
After Ratto and Spangler's comments, Johnson made a motion to approve the funding for parking kiosks and bike racks (an additional $66,000 dollars for the streetscape project), but not for larger trees. "I support all the recommendations except the trees," Johnson said. "Spending $12,000 on trees — I'd rather see that go to fixing some sidewalks."
Councilmember Doug deHaan seconded the motion.
Vice Mayor Rob Bonta explained his opposition to Johnson's motion:
"I think Park Street is a very special part of our community. It adds to the richness in our community, and it's an important part of our quality of life," Bonta said. "So I'm for investing in Park Street and making it a better experience for people who want to ride their bikes or park their cars or be pedestrians on the street, and I think that these investments will help with the mom-and-pop shops that provide a unique retail experience on Park Street."
As to using the funds for other projects? Bonta noted that the funds are highly restricted. "Yes, they could be used for other things, but they can't be used for most things in the city ... I think the people have asked for more mature trees, and I think we should give them to them."
Bonta's view was the minority one, and the motion carried 3 to 1, with members Tam, deHaan and Johnson supporting and Bonta voting against. Mayor Marie Gilmore was not at the meeting.
REACTION FROM PARK STREET
When asked about his thoughts on the City Council vote and the representation by PSBA at the City Council meeting, manager Nick Petrulakis responded with indignation. "Robb Ratto does not speak for me," he said. "The Park Street Business Association did not poll its members concerning the size of the trees. Of course I would prefer larger trees."
“Ratto might be speaking for the board. Unfortunately the board, as it stands, communicates with its constituents so ineffectually that to assume that what PSBA says mirrors what business owners and business managers want is laughable," Petrulakis said.
Heather Rider, owner of the shop across the street, echoed Petrulakis' concerns. Rider said she received no communication from PSBA about Tuesday's meeting or about the board's decision to speak in favor of smaller trees. ("No one came to me, no one emailed me," she said. "There was nothing in the newsletter.")
Down the street at , store owner Barbara Mooney said that PSBA is not a unified group. "The disconnect between the board of PSBA and the retailers of the 1300 block of Park Street is wide," she said. "If I had gone to council I would have told them I want the biggest, healthiest trees they could put in.”
Mooney said she and others are also willing to help raise funds for bigger trees.
"I am more than disheartened," she said of last week's decision, "because my children will have to take these trees down and the cycle will start again. If the city doesn’t have money to put in the healthiest biggest tree they can, they also aren’t going to have money to maintain them. Look at the trees down the block."
ROBB RATTO RESPONDS
Asked about his "Park Street is not a national park" comment to City Council, Ratto said he was joking. "It's called humor," he said. "Thirteen years I've been addressing council and it was a joke ... though it's also a factual statement."
Ratto also said no business owners have spoken out about trees at recent PSBA meetings. "No one has come to a board meeting in months about this issue," he said.
Ratto said if business owners and community members felt so strongly about the size of trees planted on the street, they should have shown up at City Council.
"If this was so important to people, they should have come to the council meeting and they should have spoken up, but they didn't," Ratto said.
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