Let’s all agree that we’d rather have the strong and beautiful ficus trees on 2nd and 4th Streets downtown than new skinny trees in their stead. Who doesn’t love robust, older trees? We all do. I’m pretty sure that has never been the question in the Santa Monica ficus tree dust-up.
What appears to be at issue are questions of maintenance, with the trees mature roots now pushing up sidewalk pavements and their branches interfering with bus movements. And while we’re on it, we all like buses that provide energy-saving mass transit. In these ways, the ficus tree battle feels to me as though it’s headed for a best-case resolution rather than one that will truly satisfy the yearning to leave things as they are in our city… a yearning that readers of this column know this writer constantly indulges.
However, let’s not just roll over before 23 trees are lost forever and 31 are transplanted to other locations. There are aspects of the ficus tree battle that still rub the wrong way, and we owe it to ourselves to make sure the dialogue on the trees is holistic and complete, if only because I get to use “holistic” in a sentence this week.
When the city’s plan to bring down the trees first started stirring things up, there was more than one mention of a concern by 2nd and 4th Street merchants that the trees blocked visibility of businesses on those streets. Over time this particular dimension was cited less and less, possibly because it seemed too obvious and would slow the momentum of moving the trees. It’s impractical to argue that nature must always trump commerce, but if business and storefront visibility is a key factor in the city’s decision… then there is an obligation to hear opinions and analysis from as many tree experts on all sides as possible before resolving the issue. Remember, we’re the city that told Target stores “No.”
There’s also the matter of the Landmarks Commission finding that the ficus trees did not meet the criteria to become a landmark. Which would have sat better with me if the commission hadn’t then unanimously agreed that the façade of the NuWilshire Theatre was a landmark. Again, we all like the movies. But one might deduce that a classic show biz veneer is better for business than oxygen-producing trees. That previous sentence could easily be a bumper sticker for the LA Chamber of Commerce.
Ultimately, there is a romantic motive in the ficus fight that shouldn’t be denied. Instead, let’s all embrace it: The ficus trees are nice. They are living things in the heart of our city. When even a mountaineering store meant to help us find nature is finally another two-story building filled with manufactured goods, the ficus trees are a means of keeping an urban landscape literally rooted to something. And the trees do that at a time when every block of business and retail in Southern California is at risk of becoming Universal City Walk electro-pop junk. Call it the Bubba Gump aesthetic.
We’re pulled so many ways now, and often the forces working on us are doing one thing with their right hand and another with their left. We are getting cars that use less gas, but they use gas all the same. Grocery store chains profess to seek “green” relationships with the earth and its people by struggling with paper versus plastic, yet they continue building more stores and increasing traffic and exhaust emissions. The new stores come not because certain areas are cut off from food, but because any love for the planet is exceeded by love for continued growth. (Just a shout-out to our friends in the Rose and Lincoln area…)
In all this, trees matter. Trees are a good fight.
Long past its resolution, the ficus tree struggle will be remembered as classic Santa Monica-issue civics, in which there was a seemingly inarguable list of practical considerations that was then effectively slowed and stopped by the voices of alert citizens wanting more thought and review before the chainsaws were deployed. Maybe we shouldn’t use words like “struggle” or “issue.” The reality is that the debate on the ficus trees is more a proper and accurate reflection of the citizen involvement that unites Santa Monica and keeps it from becoming, among other things, Disney’s Beach Town USA. Wait, I didn’t mean to pitch that idea. Oh, no… is there any way to keep this edition out of Burbank…?