FOURTH STREET — Nearly a year since 23 ficus trees were uprooted in a controversial streetscape improvement project, some hard feelings clearly remain.
In a gathering that was billed as a cooperation building workshop between tree activists and city officials about matters related to the urban forest, the discussion on more than one occasion went back to those group of ficuses that created a firestorm in 2007 when City Hall decided to move forward with a Downtown beautification project that included their removal.
The trees eventually came down in May of last year after a series of injunctions and court appeals that eventually sided with City Hall.
“I don’t know who thought of it … but to me, it’s a very sick feeling for me to walk down Second and Fourth (streets) and see our beautiful ficus trees gone,” said Sally Silverstein, who along with her husband, Herb, held a nightly vigil in honor of the ficuses at Palisades Park.
Hosted by the Santa Monica Treesavers, which formed in response to the ficus tree controversy, the meeting featured a presentation and question and answer session with a panel of city officials, including Joan Akins, the community maintenance director, Randy Little, the public landscape manager, and Walt Warriner, the community forester.
Jerry Rubin, one of the co-founders of the Treesavers, said he felt a cooperation building meeting between residents and city officials was an appropriate next step following the City Council’s decision earlier this month to create a task force that will advise city staff on the creation of an Urban Forest Master Plan.
“I think that is the thing everyone would want to do,” Rubin said about the two sides working collegially. “It goes without saying that people in Santa Monica, the residents and the business community, would say it’s better to work cooperatively than adversarial.”
Standing next to Rubin during the meeting was a white board on which a greeting was written in green marker — “Treesavers ‘cooperation building’ meeting. Welcome!”
A peace sign was drawn into the “O” in welcome.
But the meeting wasn’t so peaceful at times as several residents criticized the recent colored lighting of the ficus trees on Second and Fourth streets, some arguing that the bolts fastened into the trees were hurting the leafy specimens. Some Treesavers grumbled and shook their heads as they listened to city officials, others whispering to each other.
“It’s like New Orleans; carnival time,” Silverstein said of the new lighting scheme. “I am really heartsick that this has happened to our trees.”
Warriner explained that when placed in an urban environment, the trees, much like other living things, learn to adapt to all the elements that come with it, including underground utilities and sidewalks. He said that different trees respond to excavation, root pruning and attachments to certain ways, calling the ficus “resilient.”
“By putting a bolt into the tree, the tree will compartmentalize that wound and it doesn’t inhibit the trees’ growth,” he said. “It doesn’t create a wound it can’t tolerate.”
He likened it to how the human body reacts to an ear piercing, to which one Treesaver responded by shouting it was a “terrible analogy.”
“No, it’s not,” Warriner said.
Before the question and answer session started, city officials updated residents on the formation of the task force, which could take about four weeks.
The master plan is expected to act as a guide for City Hall when it comes to maintaining and replacing trees in Santa Monica.
“This master plan we hope will develop in it the care of trees, the maintenance of them and the programs and polices and goals and objectives that will last approximately 50 years,” Akins said.
Little said the plan will also include coordinates for every planted tree and vacancy in town.
Officials said they expect a permanent tree commission will be recommended to help enforce the master plan.
Warriner encouraged residents to attend community meetings to have their voices heard, noting that it was one way to build cooperation between City Hall and the public.
“It’s not going to be just us talking to you, it’s you talking to us,” he said.
Warriner added that there was a very low turnout during the community meetings several years ago when the Downtown streetscape plan was presented.
“We would have much rather heard that (input) at the design process,” Warriner said. “We would’ve taken it into consideration.”
Several Treesavers said they were grateful for the city officials appearance at the meeting, hoping that everyone would be able to move on from disagreements in the past.
“I have gone through the emotional negativity and difficulty in this process,” Marissa Rubin, who is married to Jerry Rubin, said. “I want us to be flexible now to say we’re in a different place historically.”
Lily Helbig, a Santa Monica resident, said after the meeting that she felt Akins, Little and Warriner were caught in the middle of the controversy.
“This was the council’s baby,” Helbig said of the beautification plan. “I like all those (council) people personally, but they blew it. They just blew it.”
Susan Hartley, a City Council candidate last year who also co-founded the Treesavers, said she believes the cooperation needs to come more from City Hall with the residents than vice versa.
“Whenever there was a focus on residents cooperating with the city, the city was doing what the residents didn’t want,” she said.
Hartley said she has seen hints of City Hall working with residents.
“I think there could be cooperation but I still think that the Treesavers’ role is to be vigilant and to be vigilantes when they see things are being done to harm the trees,” she said.