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Santa Monicans Rally 'Round 'The Big Tree'

Development: Old cedar is at the center of a preservation effort on property where condos are to be built.

October 12, 2002|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Maybe Biola University can turn the place into a branch campus.

That's one of the suggestions tree lovers in Santa Monica are making in hopes of saving a 100-year-old cedar that stands in the way of development of a valuable city lot that the religious college has inherited.

The huge tree--and the double lot that it shades--was bequeathed to the La Mirada-based school by an alumna who died six months ago. The estate's trustee wants to sell the property to condominium developers and give the money to the college.

But a save-the-tree campaign has sprouted, led by a Redmond, Wash., woman who spent her childhood climbing through the thick limbs of the 81-foot wide Cedrus deodara.

The tree was planted by the parents of Dorothy English, who died last March at age 90. English, who never married, left a reported $12 million in stocks and real estate. She specified that three-fourths of it go to Biola University, which was known as the Bible Institute of Los Angeles when she graduated in 1936 with a degree in Christian education.

English lived most of her life in one of the two houses beneath the cedar tree. She rented the lot's second house--a turn-of-the-century Craftsman-style cottage--to Greyling Gentry's family for nearly 40 years.

"Dorothy loved that tree," said Gentry, now an administrator at a Seattle software company. "She passed up many opportunities to sell the lot to developers for a lot of money. She wanted that tree to be preserved."

Although the neighborhood was filled with bungalows and fruit trees during Gentry's childhood, most of the other single-family homes in the vicinity of what locals call "The Big Tree" have been demolished and replaced with apartments and condominiums.

"I have dreaded the day of Dorothy English's death my whole life," Gentry said. "I knew the tree would be in danger."

Gentry returned to Santa Monica this week to organize a six-hour rally, scheduled to start at 11 a.m. Sunday, beneath the tree at 918 N. 5th St. She and others will circulate petitions asking the city's Landmark Commission to designate the cedar as a landmark when the panel meets Monday.

The tree preservation campaign is already having an effect.

Townhouse developer Thomas Yu, who had agreed to buy the double lot for more than $2 million, backed out on the half containing "The Big Tree" this month when he heard of the community sentiment.

"I recommended to my client that he didn't want to take the tree down, whether the city passed a law saying it's historical or not," said Sia Khajavi, a building consultant working with Yu.

Khajavi was prepared to scale back the proposed condominium development on that lot from five units to three to preserve the tree. But he said the trustee liquidating English's estate had refused to reduce the lot's $1,050,000 asking price accordingly.

Trustee Dave Marcinkus, a Culver City paralegal who was a friend of English, said it is his responsibility to maximize her contribution to Biola University.

"She liked trees. But she didn't put the preservation of this one in her will. She could have created a trust for the tree to protect it, but she didn't," Marcinkus said.

Marcinkus said he plans to attend Sunday's rally. "I have visions of the old Frankenstein movie, with people with torches chasing me down the street," he said. "But if it could be worked out, I'd like to save the tree."

For their part, Biola University officials are trying to distance themselves from the dispute.

"I'm used to dealing with stocks and things like that, not trees," said Gary Araujo, manager of the school office that coordinates bequests. "I think Biola is certainly open to all the options regarding this situation."

Supporters of "The Big Tree" say they have plenty of ideas on ways to preserve the 60-foot cedar, which is 12 feet around at its base.

They say the city could buy the lot or trade development rights for it and turn it into a pocket park. Or Biola could convert the Craftsman cottage into a university retreat that would also serve as a memorial to English.

"This tree is definitely worth saving," said Patrick Gaynes, an investment banker who lives with his wife Elizabeth and son Truman, 2, in Gentry's old cottage. "A red-tail hawk lives in the tree. We sometimes find people sitting in its branches and meditating."

Landmark Commissioner Nina Fresco, who inspected the tree Thursday, said a landmark designation would keep developers from chopping down the tree without the city's approval.

City Councilman Kevin McKeown, who is Santa Monica's mayor pro tem, said trees such as the cedar "are as much a part of our history as events or buildings."

"The neighborhood has rallied around this tree," he said. "They are literally on tree watch to make certain it doesn't get cut down."

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