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Landmark status denied for trees

Santa Monica panel rejects activists' effort to stop ficus' removal.

January 17, 2008|Francisco Vara-Orta | Times Staff Writer

The ficus crisis in Santa Monica appears to be headed to court.

For the last several months, local activists and city officials have sparred over the planned removal of 54 ficus trees along 2nd and 4th streets, part of an $8-million beautification project.

On Monday, Santa Monica's Landmarks Commission voted 6 to 1 to deny landmark status to those trees -- and 99 others -- in the downtown area near Third Street Promenade.

Santa Monica Treesavers, an informal group of residents and visitors concerned with protecting the city's trees, had asked the commission to designate the 153 trees as historical and cultural landmarks, thus saving the 54 ficus at the center of the controversy.

But the commission sided with the city officials, who argued that the trees didn't meet the criteria of the city's landmark ordinance, said city spokeswoman Kate Vernez.

Dan Jansenson, a local architect and member of Treesavers, said his group would appeal the decision to the City Council within the next two weeks.

"Our morale is still higher than ever," said Jansenson. "We're determined to save those trees."

Treesavers' attorney, Tom Nitti, said the group has also filed a lawsuit contending that the city violated state law by not filing an environmental impact report regarding the tree removal.

Santa Monica planned to remove 23 trees that the city's arborist considered too damaged or decayed to be relocated. The other 31 would be moved throughout the city, with some likely planted near Santa Monica Municipal Airport, said Elaine Polachek, director of community maintenance.

"The ficus might be happier in another location and their roots able to run freely as needed," she said.

Resembling a vibrant, full head of broccoli upon a thick, gray stalk, ficus trees were a popular choice in the early 1960s for urban centers trying to spruce up their landscape. They provide a large amount of shade and were believed to require little maintenance.

But last August, city planners proposed a plan to open up parts of 2nd and 4th streets to more sun, in the vein of the popular, less-shady Third Street Promenade. City planners said they identified 54 trees with branches that interfered with bus traffic and overgrown roots that cracked sidewalks. Those trees cost the city thousands of dollars in upkeep, repairs and payouts from "trip-and-fall" lawsuits by pedestrians, Polachek said.

The city plans to replace each ficus with two young ginkgo trees.

Some business owners on 4th Street opposed the plan and organized a petition drive, gathering more than 1,600 signatures to save the ficus trees.

In October, Treesavers' lead activist Jerry Rubin obtained a three-week restraining order to protect the trees until the group was able to submit the landmark designation request.

Despite the commission's decision, the 54 trees are safe until Feb. 22, when representatives of the city and Treesavers will meet in court to see whether a judge will grant the city's request to throw out the activists' lawsuit.

Although parts of the revitalization project are underway, the city has agreed to hold off on the tree removal until the court date, said Joseph Lawrence, an assistant city attorney for Santa Monica.

Jansenson said he's grown attached to the ficus that shade him on his frequent bike rides to his office downtown. He joined Treesavers because he thought the city had weak arguments to support removing the trees.

"They talk about costs, but it'll cost them nothing to leave them alone," Jansenson said. "The ficus provide shade from the hot sun in summer for pedestrians and lower air conditioning bills for businesses. I think the city is just wedded to the project and wants to save face at this point."

Rubin and other protesters have publicly threatened to stage a hunger strike, chain themselves to the trunks and hold funerals for any trees removed.

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francisco.varaorta @latimes.com

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