IF THE FICUS COULD USE its green, fatty canopy, long limbs and stubborn roots as weapons in mortal combat like Treebeard, then Second and Fourth streets would look like Isengard after the Last March of the Ents, flooded and filled with the bodies of tree-slaying Orcs.
But this isn't Middle Earth, it's downtown Santa Monica, where trees can't save themselves even in the face of certain death. Fortunately for them, they've got Jerry Rubin, a tall, thin, bearded and bespectacled 64-year-old who heads Treesavers, a group powered by fellow Santa Monica residents' eco-outrage, first unleashed this past August.
That was when the Santa Monica City Council voted six-to-one to remove and relocate 31 mature, healthy ficus trees and destroy another 23 the city considers decaying or dangerously off-balance – “irreversible” symptoms of trees continuously resisting their tight, urban straightjackets. According to the city, removing the 54 trees would make streets safer for pedestrians and reduce concrete sidewalk-repair costs and legal payouts to trip-and-fall victims – the same complaints repeated across Southern California cities, where half-century-old ficus trees have outgrown and outlived their welcome, at least with tidy bureaucrats.
Santa Monica City Hall's ficus-destruction plans were part of a larger, $8 million project that the city dubs the Second and Fourth Street Pedestrian and Streetscape Improvements, which also included increasing sidewalk lighting, extending curbs at crosswalks and replacing the 54 trees with 139 deciduous ginkgo biloba trees in the eight-block area between Colorado Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard.
No other part of the project has incited the kind of personal opposition like the proposal to remove more than a third of the streets' 156 ficus trees – 40-foot-tall, 60-foot-wide giant balls of year-round green that, unlike often-scrawny ginkgo, provide deep shade. Local residents and merchants who love these trees want the $700,000 pledged to remove them spent looking for ways to preserve all but “the most dangerous trees.”
“There's a history on these trees that people have written,” Rubin says, pointing to one of the dozens of messages hand-carved on the trunk of a Fourth Street ficus. “Look: 'John loves Mary!' It's a great tree to hug – it's even big enough for a two-person hug.”
The city planned to begin removing the trees in early October, but its plans have been delayed by Treesavers' last-minute restraining order and political maneuvers, if not by its members' tree-side vigils, TV press conferences and hunger-strike threats. The city has held off until at least January 14, when a city commission will vote on the group's request to grant the 54 trees landmark status.
But if the legal routes fail, Rubin has been prepping his tree huggers for hardcore tactics that could make life hell for Santa Monica pols.
“I know there are many people that are willing to put themselves on the line for this cause,” he says. “I am not saying this as a threat. Tree-sitting and chaining [ourselves to trees] is something we never hope has to happen. But there are many of us willing to do it. A sit-in at City Hall is something we're holding off on right now, for example.”
Santa Monica City Council has shown no signs of changing its mind, even now that one of the principal justifications for condemning the 23 trees – “disease” – was untrue. The word “diseased,” city officials now admit, was misused again and again by city staff.
“Disease was not the correct term,” says city manager Lamont Ewell. “I think people are misusing that fact. It wasn't [intended] to be misleading. What I understand is that I'm behind what our city forester [Walter Warriner] has said. Those trees need to come out!”
But other city leaders are now admitting that the plan did not arise from concern over disease or other possible dangers caused by the trees. Rather, a powerful business owners' association is almost obsessively convinced that storefronts on Second and Fourth streets are less popular than the jammed, pedestrian-only Third Street Promenade because – wait for it – the Promenade is planted with a more flowery tree species. In Santa Monica, home of frequently bizarre politics, business leaders believe pedestrians prefer “dappled” light.
“This was almost all the idea of the Bayside District [Corporation],” says City Councilman Kevin McKeown, the lone vote against removing the grand old trees. “They're trying to figure out why Third Street has been a phenomenal success and why Second and Fourth streets haven't. I suggest they consider the fact that the Promenade doesn't have any cars!”
In 1997, Bayside's board, which manages the 34-square block downtown, recommended that the city remove all 156 ficus trees on Second and Fourth streets and replace them with the Promenade's purple flowering tree, the jacaranda.
“Our charge is to remain [economically] viable,” says Bayside executive director Kathleen Rawson. To her mind, “[the ficus] is dense, and light doesn't reach the sidewalk. People want more sunlight, and the expectation is that those streets [will] become more inviting.”
Nobody knows how Rawson and the Bayside group cooked up the curious theory that Angelenos want less shade. The University of Washington's Professor Kathleen Wolf found that when survey respondents were asked to rate outdoor shopping scenes that differed by tree size and canopy density, those scenes with larger trees and denser canopies ranked highest.
Rawson says Bayside's board didn't consult any studies. The city admitted in an October 2005 report that “it was difficult to assess community 'sentiment' since so few people” attended publicly advertised – but in fact largely unknown – tree meetings. After that, planners decided to replace every other ficus tree with the ginkgo so that the “less-dense deciduous tree would provide dappled light most [of] the year and direct light in the winter, as well as increased visibility to and from the many interesting building frontages.”
But Warriner then informed them that removing healthy ficus trees without regard to their ability to be successfully replanted wasn't “good forestry.” A key issue is that the ficus scrubs more pollutants than any other tree; and it sucks up and processes dirty water that would otherwise enter storm drains and the sea.
“They asked … then which ones can we remove?'Â ” recounts Warriner. “I said the worst ones – those 23.” In addition, at the request of city planners, he chose 31 trees that he believes could survive replanting.
It's almost humorous to watch the Santa Monica City Council attempt to justify its plans, now that the most visible opposition is from Second and Fourth streets' merchants – the intended beneficiaries of Bayside's plan. Dozens have displayed Treesavers-supplied “Save These Trees” posters on their storefront windows.
“I've been here for 25 years,” says Ken Salek, who owns Nobel Gems Inc. with his brother. “We chose this street because of the look that these trees created. Fourth Street is known for these trees. [But] these are 'design elements' to [Bayside]. I have a problem with that.”
The notion that scrawnier trees help lure shoppers has spread through sunbaked Southern California – typified by what happened in West Hollywood. Between 2000 and 2001, over the protests of its tree savers, the city cut 100 of its ficus trees along Santa Monica Boulevard – on the recommendation of a street-redesign committee.
“The trees were probably the hottest topic on our committee,” says former West Hollywood mayor Steve Martin. “The Chamber of Commerce wanted all the trees to be palm trees” – which offer virtually no shade but handily allow commercial signs in the space where shade trees once stood. “We had to convince them that shade was good. I really fought hard to defend [the ficus] trees, but we were paying out hundreds of thousands of dollars in trip-and-fall cases. There was only one logical conclusion.”
Santa Monica Boulevard instead got wan-looking Chinese elms interspersed with thin jacarandas, destroying the boulevard's deep shade – and its lush look – for a more common suburban feel. “The ficus had their day,” Martin says. “They're really a symbol of a different era.”
Pasadena and Beverly Hills, which by contrast avidly protect their shade canopies, are probably the ficus' safest home in Southern California. “We get a lot of complaints [about our ficus trees] – I'm not going to lie,” says Darya Woods of Pasadena's Parks and Natural Resources Division. “It's just that the political climate in Pasadena – from the residents to the council members to our city manager – is not to remove those trees.”
With shopkeepers demanding that their ficuses stay put, and with residents like Jerry Rubin hinting at chaining themselves to trees, Santa Monica's overlords seem determined to rip out the prized trees. McKeown scoffs that a passing fad is to blame – “streetscape style.” To his fellow council members he says, “Sometimes you have to suck it up and say, 'That vote was a mistake.'Â ”