Endeavour's Tree-Killing Debut | News | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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Endeavour's Tree-Killing Debut 

Steve Soboroff falsely said the chopped trees were dying, sick

Thursday, Sep 27 2012
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Clear-cut in Leimert Park: A healthy eucalyptus on MLK, its trunk 6 feet across, was destroyed by California Science Center's private cutter as Villaraigosa's Board of Public Works looked the other way.

PHOTO BY DREW BARILLAS

Clear-cut in Leimert Park: A healthy eucalyptus on MLK, its trunk 6 feet across, was destroyed by California Science Center's private cutter as Villaraigosa's Board of Public Works looked the other way.

"Moving the Endeavour will be a marvel of wonder and ingenuity," Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said at an August press conference, where it was announced that some 212 traffic signals and streetlights would be dismantled to accommodate the shuttle's slow crawl through South L.A. to its new home at the California Science Center.

What Villaraigosa pointedly did not say that day — and what no one from the Science Center said either — was that they also were quietly planning to chop down hundreds of mature, often beautiful shade trees in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

Until the moment Inglewood residents awoke to buzzsaws outside their homes on Sept. 3, few people knew of California Science Center president Jeffrey N. Rudolph's controversial plan to hack down more than 370 magnolia, coral, bottlebrush, eucalyptus, sycamore and pine trees that line the 12-mile shuttle route from LAX.

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"This is unbelievable!" well-known wetlands activist Marcia Hanscom says with disgust.

She views the destruction of nearly 400 trees — after zero public notice or involvement — as "symptomatic of deeper problems: Here in L.A., it's OK to bulldoze a wetland away because 'it will come back.' The same disconnected thinking leads to approval of something like this tree massacre: 'We'll just plant more!' "

Ever since the truth belatedly emerged that city leaders and Rudolph planned to destroy 119 trees in South L.A., 124 in the Westchester area, 128 in the city of Inglewood and a handful near LAX to make way for L.A.'s latest tourist attraction, Angelenos and even many living outside the city have been up in arms.

"I could care less about the stupid space shuttle OK? We need the trees over here. Let me tell you why: Because we are burning right here in this city," said a woman named Anna, who huddled under an umbrella for shade on a blistering hot Tuesday, waiting for a bus across from a now-treeless median on Manchester Avenue.

Few people realize that the city and the museum got away with, well, tree murder, by abusing an obscure section of L.A.'s municipal code that was actually meant to protect, not destroy, trees. Those rules normally apply to "house moving."

On Sept. 17, under intense pressure from reporters to explain themselves, Rudolph and the California Science Center Foundation went into full damage-control mode, deploying former deputy mayor, ex-city commissioner and foundation adviser Steve Soboroff to smooth things over.

Soboroff declared to the L.A. Daily News: "We engaged TreePeople to be involved, and the vast majority [of trees] to be removed are sick, dying or creating havoc on the sidewalks — and a number are scheduled to be replaced."

The media appeared to accept these claims as facts delivered by a well-known civic figure. The same day, the Board of Public Works let furious members of the public air their anger during a strictly for show, informational meeting. And as excitement built about seeing the space shuttle swoop over Los Angeles landmarks, the media started covering the chopping-down of the dying, diseased and troublesome trees as a foregone conclusion.

But there were two enormous problems: Steve Soboroff was not telling the truth. And the California Science Center — a partnership of the state of California and the museum's foundation — was flouting state law with help from Villaraigosa's political appointees on the Board of Public Works.

The 265-plus trees in Los Angeles, some of which have yet to be hacked down, and the 128 trees already destroyed in Inglewood are not, in fact, dying or diseased.

Moreover, TreePeople — whose reputation gave weight to Soboroff's outlandish claim last week — had nothing to do with the museum's clearly mishandled "survey" of the doomed trees.

The "survey," if there is one, ostensibly was created by the very same company being paid by the museum to chop down the trees — ValleyCrest Landscape Companies. But their tree survey was not given to the Board of Public Works or the museum leaders — or to Soboroff.

And Caryn Bosson, TreePeople's spokeswoman, says her group wasn't involved in the survey. It was involved only in a community lobbying effort to change the route via which the museum planned to haul Endeavour. The goal was to save 500 Canary Island pine trees, which were planted during a huge event in 1990 organized by well-known environmentalists and black civic figures as a memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. on the boulevard bearing his name.

Incredibly, Rudolph and the California Science Center Foundation had planned to chop down the blocks-long memorial to King without first consulting with o the groups who 22 years ago gave life to the majestic stand of pine trees.

"Each tree was adopted by a community member, and watered and cared for — for 10 years," Bosson says. "These [are] important, important community trees." A coalition, including TreePeople, convinced Rudolph and the California Science Center to spare, at the very least, those trees.

What about Soboroff's public insistence that the majority of trees being chopped down are sick, dying or wreaking havoc on sidewalks?

The Weekly asked a respected, registered consulting arborist — an expert in tree health and disease — to tour the route along which the shuttle will be moved from LAX to near USC on Oct. 12-13, and to provide an independent assessment.

"There is not one iota of decay in this whole stump," veteran arborist Jerome Smith declared, inspecting the remains of a blue gum eucalyptus tree hacked up by the museum's contractor, ValleyCrest, earlier that day. "Over 6 feet in diameter — nothing! Absolutely nothing wrong with this tree."

After taking stock of the entire 12 miles, including the remaining trees and already shorn trunks, Smith delivered a disturbing analysis: He did not see a single tree anywhere along the Endeavour route that was dying.

He didn't see any major sidewalk problems, either, or at least nothing that a sidewalk grinder couldn't fix. (Inglewood officials OK'd removal of that city's huge ficus shade trees along Manchester Boulevard for the Endeavour move, saying they had planned to remove them anyway to avoid future damage to the roadway. The Weekly observed no damage to the median around these cut-off trunks.)

The "sick" trees to which Soboroff referred, Smith concedes, can mean a lot of things in arboricultural terms. But none of the trees had untreatable ailments; the biggest problem for most was a lack of maintenance by the two cities.

Soboroff later admitted to the Weekly that he never saw ValleyCrest's survey. In fact, according to ValleyCrest vice president of marketing Caroline Weilert, no one at the California Science Center has seen the survey. But Weilert insists, "The customer [California Science Center] understands what the decision-making criteria was in determining which trees get removed."

It went like this, Weilert says: Crews from ValleyCrest drove the route and measured the width of the street. In spots where the roadway was too narrow to move Endeavour through without damaging the space shuttle's fragile tiles, employees removed street signs rather than trees when possible.

When they came upon trees growing on both sides of the street, workers removed the less-healthy tree or the tree whose species, she says, was "less suited to the urban environment."

And what if two healthy trees of the same species were found on a stretch too narrow to accommodate Endeavour?

Weilert stopped short, saying, "I don't know, I wasn't there on the ground making decisions." In fact, ValleyCrest workers on the ground made the kind of calls that usually require an inspection, a detailed report and, often, public hearings at City Hall.

The problem isn't just that hundreds of trees that provide shade to working-class South L.A. have vanished.

According to Frances E. Kuo, director of the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Los Angeles leaders appear to have acted on the misbegotten notion of "trees as decoration."

In fact, Kuo said via email, research shows that trees in cities "play a vital role in public health — in reducing mortality and disease, improving immune functioning and reducing both violent and property crime, not to mention their effects on air quality."

The negative impact of losing mature trees and having barren streets could be big in South L.A. neighborhoods — but Villaraigosa's hand-picked appointees on the Board of Public Works never considered those implications.

John J. Choi, who left the Board of Public Works 10 weeks before the tree-cutting controversy erupted (to run for City Council District 13 in Hollywood, Silver Lake and Echo Park) was the board's official tree liaison to the city's Street Services division. He says he heard nothing — officially or unofficially — about the museum's tree-cutting plan.

Choi says the plan "should have gone before the board. The trees would have fallen under my responsibility and I never had a report on that." He says the city should have required an initial environmental review to decide whether the project could be fast-tracked with a "negative declaration" — a finding that the environmental impact is insignificant.

Had the Board of Public Works done its job, it might have found the tree-chopping to be a significant blow to the environment — and a full-fledged Environmental Impact Report would have been required.

No such thing happened — the Villaraigosa administration did not even bother with a "negative declaration" and did not attempt even the most basic initial environmental review.

Smith, the certified consulting arborist, declares: "Of all the hubristic, self-serving, politically corrupt crap I've seen in my 40 years as an arborist!"

So how did the California Science Center get away with skirting the California Environmental Quality Act — avoiding the hassle of an EIR and public hearings that would have tipped off residents and given them an opening to fight back?

Rudolph was handed a loophole — a way around state and city environmental law — by the office of Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich. Using that loophole, the California Science Center simply applied for a "house-moving" permit. The permit, meant for such routine jobs as hauling a double-wide mobile home across town, is designed to discourage damage to trees by requiring a bond.

But instead, creative minds under Trutanich told museum leaders that all they needed was a house-moving permit to bypass the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

Assistant City Attorney Ted Jordan explained at the Board of Public Works meeting on Sept. 17 — the single, after-the-fact informational meeting where the tree destruction was explained to enraged residents — that city lawyers had analyzed CEQA and decided the far-reaching state law didn't apply to the removal of hundreds of trees. Jordan declined to comment to the Weekly.

Granting a house-moving permit is a "ministerial" action — meaning it is rubberstamped, just like applications for car registration, a marriage license or a dog license. By contrast, when city officials are required to make a serious judgment call — like when someone wants to remove trees — CEQA must be used.

When the average Angeleno wants to cut down a street tree, he must lodge a request with the city's Department of Urban Forestry, submit an application and take pictures. Next, a city forester comes out, inspects the tree and writes up a report. The matter then goes before the Board of Public Works for a decision. The process takes 30 to 90 days.

Jeffrey Rudolph and the politically well-connected California Science Center didn't have to bother with any of that.

The decision as to which trees came down and where — as well as which kinds of trees will be planted as replacements in South L.A. and when — has been left up to a private landscaping company with little oversight from the museum and no oversight from City Hall, which essentially washed its hands of the matter.

The folks who live in South L.A. can at least be comforted by Steve Soboroff's ringing endorsement of ValleyCrest. "They've been in business for 60 years! They've been doing city stuff, Disneyland! I think they are the finest people in the country. I trust 'em," he says.

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