Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - November 11, 2011

On Deadline: Greer Park — A 'Save Those Trees' battle that wasn't

by Jay Thorwaldson

Spurred by news reports that 33 trees were going to be cut down in Greer Park in southeast Palo Alto, a group of citizens showed up at a meeting determined to save those trees.

It was shaping up as another "tree battle" in the urban forest of Palo Alto, long known as "the city that loves trees."

But after city staff members presented a detailed report about the condition of the trees and why individual trees should be removed — illustrated with projected pictures of each tree — there was a unanimous showing of hands in support of the staff's overall plan.

A couple of exceptions were several healthy trees that might be saved and a request by one resident that the city consider planting extra trees beyond the planned 33 replacement trees.

But there was a discernable shift among the two dozen people who showed up for the Oct. 18 evening session in the Friends Meeting Hall in south Palo Alto. At the outset, neighborhood leader Sheri Furman reminded folks that they were meeting in a religious building. With the exception of one snappish exchange between two attendees, the audience was attentive, polite, almost cordial despite a sense of suspicious tension.

The outcome was a far cry from such meetings in the past, and reflected the approach of meeting organizers Furman and Annette Glanckopf. The tone of the session also reflected the fact that many trees to be removed were sickly, such as a number of alder trees and some others.

But the big "context" issue was that there were 313 other mature trees in the park, in addition to 74 newly planted trees, for a total of 387 trees. The size of the canopy (area shaded by the trees) is another way of viewing the matter: The removed trees would reduce the 99,000-square-foot canopy by about 2,500 square feet, but new trees would eventually add up to 18,000 square feet, according to staff estimates.

In other words, this is not "another California Avenue" clear-cutting, as some residents initially feared — referring to the all-at-once removal of 63 holly oak trees in the business stretch of California Avenue in mid-September 2009. That removal surprised both residents and top city officials.

The outrage and suspicion sown by that incident have been slow to dispel, but in the two years since city officials have been trying to rebuild trust and assure residents they still care about the city's approximately 36,000 street trees and perhaps three times that number on private property.

The city is now planning to hire an "urban forester" to supplement its two city arborists, David Dockter of the Planning and Transportation Department and recently-hired Peter Jensen of the Public Works Department. Jensen is both an arborist and a landscape architect. They and Eugene Segna and Elizabeth Ames of Public Works fielded questions and quietly began the trust-building process at the Oct. 18 meeting.

The current city effort to save a huge oak tree at 816 Cowper St. is part of that effort, although its fate still hangs in the balance pending a health assessment of the tree.

Ironically, that tree is a remnant of a long-ago "tree battle" in Palo Alto: the 1917 "live oak" fight.

That battle related to several hundred trees that grew in the middle of often-unpaved Palo Alto streets. It seems that they were getting hit regularly by early automobiles that, according to one story, were being driven home at night from the many bars in Mayfield — now the California Avenue business district. It seems that horses would go around the trees irrespective of the level of inebriation of their riders or buggy drivers but "horseless carriages" failed.

Residents rallied to save the trees and, while 60 or 70 were removed due to their condition, a couple of hundred were saved. Some still survive, such as the Cowper Street oak. An "explosion" of speeding cars (exceeding the 10-miles-per-hour speed limit) and their tree encounters was a significant problem for Palo Alto's then police chief, Chester Noble. I once wrote an obituary of a man who survived in his youth the first known bicycle-car collision, on University Avenue near High Street.

The car-tree problem remains. In the 1960s, after longtime city Arborist George Hood made Palo Alto famous as an urban forest, there was a joke that if a car hit one of the large magnolia trees along University Avenue that they'd dispatch an ambulance for the driver and a tree crew for the tree — and the tree crew would get there first!

The city even had its own tree nursery, at the rear of Eleanor Pardee Park at Center Drive and Channing Avenue.

Hood was known for his care of El Palo Alto, the city's "living landmark" redwood tree. He had an annual "physical exam" of the tree done by a climber from McClenahan Tree Service, and installed a misting system in a "fool the redwood" plan to make it feel it was in a fog-visited coastal canyon.

Hood also one day noticed a vividly colored liquidambar tree and, with the help of legendary arborist Barrie Coate of the Saratoga Horticultural Foundation (which propagated native-California trees and plants) had the tree reproduced and made available as a street tree as the now well-known "Palo Alto variety" of liquidambar. Coate later said no city was planting "fall-color" trees as street trees, but that the practice spread rapidly after Palo Alto led the way, and branched out, so to speak, to other colorful trees.

But the biggest "save the trees" battle occurred in the 1990s, a decade when developers and home buyers began buying up homes, clearing the lot and building the early "McMansions."

Palo Alto up to then had no tree-preservation or "heritage tree" ordinance, lagging behind other cities by a couple of decades, because of what Dockter describes as a remarkable community dedication to and respect for its trees.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com and jaythor@well.com.

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