Driving down Venice Boulevard on a recent weekend, Isabelle Duvivier noticed that something was different. It didn’t take her long to figure out what it was: four California Sycamore trees planted by a group of community members along the street nearly thirty years ago were gone, reduced to nothing more than stumps.
Steps away from where they had once stood nearly 20 feet tall, construction was underway at the new House of Pies restaurant slated to open later this year.
“I instantly knew the trees were gone and I instantly knew who did it,” Duvivier said.
After talking with neighbors and reporting the chopped-down trees to the City of Los Angeles, her suspicions were confirmed. According to Stephen Du Prey of the L.A. Urban Forestry Division, the situation is still under investigation but he said they have reason to believe the House of Pies developer is responsible.
The trees were located on the sidewalk in the public right-of-way, meaning they could not legally be trimmed or cut down without a permit from the City. Duvivier, who is a member of L.A.’s Community Forestry Advisory Committee, said she and other local residents had helped water and care for the sycamores for years through a local volunteer organization, Verdant Venice Group (VVG), which she helped found with the mission of maintaining and improving the local environment.
“Our group has worked so hard on all the trees on Venice Boulevard,” she said. “I was just horrified because it’s such a bold move to remove a community asset when you’re about to step into a new community and say, ‘come and populate my business.’”
Du Prey said that the City is issuing a notice to the House of Pies owner and developer for non-permitted tree removal and requesting that two new trees be planted for every one that was cut down – meaning House of Pies could be on the hook for eight new trees.
However, he said that due to the nature of the location and lack of available space it is not likely all of the trees could be planted at that site, in which case the City would charge the owner $1,945 to allow them to plant a tree elsewhere within the Council District (CD 11).
While Du Prey said the motivation for cutting down the trees has not yet been determined by the City, James Murez, a long-time Venice resident who was involved in their planting in the 1990s, said he thinks aesthetics had something to do with it.
Renderings of the House of Pies restaurant posted at the construction site do not include the sycamores along the sidewalk, but instead feature multiple palm trees around the building. Murez said he spoke to someone involved in the project who told him the owner had wanted just that. “The owner of the property had talked about wanting to have palm trees out there and he was told that wasn’t possible because these trees were planted by the community and were approved street trees for the boulevard and palm trees would not be okay – he knew that,” Murez said.
However, the same person also said that he believed it was miscommunication between the owner and workers at the site that ultimately led to the trees being cut down.
The House of Pies owner did not return requests for comment before publication, but a representative involved in the project said he believes the owner is open to working with the City and the community to find a solution going forward.
For community members like Murez and Duvivier, that will involve, at a minimum, replanting and maintaining more trees like the sycamores.
Unlike palm trees, California Sycamores are native to the region and provide numerous benefits for the local ecosystem. In a city dominated by concrete and starved for green space, resident and VVG member Sarah Wauters said the removal of any public tree is a loss but the fact that these were native trees adds extra weight.
“A California Sycamore is more important than just chopping down some random, non-native tree,” she said. “Native trees provide the food and the nesting that supports the biodiversity that we have in Southern California… and another problem is we need as much shade and carbon sequestration as we can get.”
With climate change continuing to contribute to increasingly extreme heat, particularly in urban areas like L.A., Duvivier said maintaining tree cover is more important than ever. However, trees across the city are still being removed to make way for new buildings and other construction.
“We’re losing the tree canopy at a really alarming rate, mostly due to development,” Duvivier said. From 2000 to 2020 it is estimated that L.A.’s urban tree canopy decreased by 11%.
While an estimated 90% of L.A. trees are located on private property and are therefore at the mercy of landowners, the 10% of trees in public spaces have some legal protections, at least in theory. However, Duvivier said these protections too often fail to make a difference.
“These are the only trees that we can actually sort of protect, and yet we can’t protect them at all,” she said, referencing the four butchered sycamores.
Du Prey said, in line with City policy, the House of Pies owner will be required to take out a bond to ensure the health of new trees for five years.
“They have a five year period to keep them alive and if they die or decline the bond continues until they comply,” he said.
Duvivier and Murez think this is not enough and that the City needs to go further in taking action to conserve and promote public trees.
For Murez, in this case, a 30-year commitment on behalf of the owner to maintain the trees seems more appropriate to compensate for the loss, which he said he feels on a personal level as one of the people who secured funding and led the charge to plant native trees along Venice Boulevard in the first place.
“I put in thousands of hours and now here we are 30 years later and what was it all about, so somebody can just come along and do whatever they want?” Murez said. “I was doing this because I wanted the community to be better for the next generation.”
“I think it’s not enough,” Duvivier said. “Those trees were 30 years old… and the fact that they cut down the trees isn’t an indication that they’re going to be great stewards of future trees.”
She and Murez are also concerned about the precedent that a lack of more severe consequences could set.
“I’m really scared that it could be a model for other business owners and apartment building owners on the street,” Duvivier said. “I’m afraid it could start a chain reaction of other people deciding they can just go rogue on their street trees.”
However, Murez said, depending on what ends up happening, this could also be an opportunity to send the opposite signal.
“We need to send a message that needs to be really loud and clear: if you cut down a city tree, we’re going to get you for it and when we do, you’re going to be responsible for however long it’s been there,” he said.