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In Santa Monica, there's a fracas over the ficus

Activists protest the city's plan to uproot 54 trees for expansion of popular promenade.

October 05, 2007|Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Times Staff Writer

Santa Monica activist Jerry Rubin took to the streets again this week, marching not against the war in Iraq, global warming or pollution, but against what he considers a more immediate threat -- city plans to remove 54 aging ficus trees.

"We don't relocate senior citizens from their apartments just to bring in new young families," Rubin said, allowing that the ficus are not people, "but if they were, they'd probably be shouting 'Don't relocate us, don't get rid of us before our time!' "

Ficus trees are a close second to the famed palm as icons of the Southern California streetscape. Cities planted them by the thousands during the 1960s, when arborists say they were known as "wonder trees," with hardy trunks and lush green canopies that required little maintenance.

Now that the ficus are starting to show their age, cities are removing them. Low-hanging branches interfere with bus traffic and overgrown roots crack sidewalks, costing cities thousands of dollars in upkeep, repairs and payouts from pedestrian lawsuits.

Rubin represents growing local resistance to removing ficus. He and other opponents from City of Commerce to El Segundo and Newport Beach argue the tree's stylish canopy is a local trademark that sucks up carbon and soot and cools city streets, a valuable asset in an age of global warming.

"I have seen the destruction of so much green," retired Realtor Karen O'Connor, 69, said as she marched past Santa Monica's ficus trees Wednesday. "It's just becoming a concrete city."

Santa Monica city planners said the ficus need to be removed as part of an $8-million project to extend the popular Third Street Promenade to 2nd and 4th streets, home to 156 aging ficus. City plans call for relocating 31 of the trees elsewhere in the city and destroying 23 that have become diseased and damaged.

The city plans to replace each ficus with two young ginkgo trees, which city studies show create the "dappled sunlight" shoppers and tourists crave.

Opponents of the plan insist shoppers appreciate the mature ficus.

"These trees remind me of where I grew up," said Santa Monica native Darren Wachler, 38, a massage therapist who lives in Mar Vista and was shopping downtown Wednesday as the protesters marched past.

Wachler said the City Council should reconsider.

"They forgot about the roots of Santa Monica," he said.

Protesters want the city to prove the condemned ficus trees are diseased. They also want more time for public hearings so they can consult with their lawyer about making the trees local landmarks and find an arborist to evaluate the trees. More than 1,600 tree supporters signed a petition organized by business owners on 4th Street.

Rubin has applied for a restraining order to save the 54 ficus trees. He and other protesters threatened to stage a hunger strike, chain themselves to the trunks and hold funerals for any trees removed.

Santa Monica's arborist, Walt Warriner, said he's trying to be progressive, to move as many of the ficus trees as he can, even though it costs $3,000 to $7,000 more than destroying them. And Warriner said he won't remove any trees that appear to be too deeply rooted to survive a move.

Other local arborists said they're trying to save ficus, weighing their potential to damage sidewalks, water pipes and sewer lines against their environmental and aesthetic benefits.

"They're all reaching maturity at the same time. For streetscapes and the liability, [cities] are looking at a big decision all at once," said Rose Epperson, executive director of the western chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture based in Porterville, Calif.

Epperson refers to stands of troublemaking middle-aged ficus as "boomer trees."

"Personally, I think the city of Santa Monica goes above and beyond in trying to make things work before they make the hard decisions," she said.

In Newport Beach, where residents have resisted city plans to remove and replace ficus trees downtown, City Manager Homer Bludau said the city has removed several hundred ficus during the last five years, but is trying to preserve the trees where it can, "just because they add so much ambience" to areas such as Clay Street that are known for their canopies.

City of Commerce planned to chop down 1,000 ficus earlier this year before residents intervened, obtaining a court order that required an environmental study. City officials said they were trying to save money on sidewalk repairs and protect pedestrians who could trip on cracked sidewalks and sue the city. But after 51 ficus were cut down, citizen complaints led the city to relent and only remove sick or severely damaged ficus.

George Gonzalez, Los Angeles' chief forester, said ficus shouldn't be labeled a problem tree since many other street trees crack sidewalks and outgrow their plots. Although the city isn't planting more ficus as part of its Million Trees L.A. project, and has removed some of the city's 30,000 ficus, Gonzalez said he works where he can to instead prune the trees, and enlarge their root space and surrounding sidewalk.

"We're not trying to preserve the tree at all costs, but we're also saying don't just remove the tree if it will cause damage," Gonzalez said. "Because if you do, you will not have trees in Los Angeles or Santa Monica."

Santa Monica ficus supporters plan to hold a meeting today at 6 p.m. in front of City Hall. For more information, visit www.treesavers.blogspot.com or call (310) 399-1000.

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molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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