If all the ficus trees on 2nd and 4th Streets downtown are to be saved, it will not be by way of a City “landmark” designation, as the City Council voted 5-1 to deny the Treesavers’ appeal and uphold the Landmarks Commission January 14 decision not to landmark the trees.
The decision may not be as dramatic as some had thought, as the City’s Community Forest & Public Landscape Superintendent Walt Warriner explained that of the 153 trees, the City plans to remove only 23 and relocate an additional 31.
The Council vote came after more than 40 persons urged that the Commission’s vote be overturned and the trees be designated as landmarks at the City Council meeting on Tuesday, February 19.
Also on the agenda was a recommendation to direct the City Attorney to prepare for Council consideration an ordinance banning the free distribution to customers of single-use plastic carryout bags at stores within the city. That matter was put over to a future meeting when it became apparent that the tree appeal and budget items would push the meeting past midnight before the plastic bags would come up for discussion.
But before the decision to postpone, the Council heard from five students early in the agenda. Four spoke in favor of the proposal, but the Santa Monica Plastic Bag Monster purported to oppose the recommendation. When Mayor Pro Tem Richard Bloom said to the Monster – covered in ratty plastic bags – “It must be hard for you to get dates,” the Monster replied, “Yes, reusable bags get all the hot dates.”
The Tree Debate
The Council heard from City staff, who recommended that the Treesavers’ appeal be denied and the Landmarks Commission decision be upheld on the grounds that the trees did not meet any of the six criteria for landmark designation.
Jerry Rubin and four other Treesavers’ representatives then presented a slide presentation designed to demonstrate that the trees met four of the criteria (any one of which would be sufficient), including identification “with historic personages” Jacqueline Girion, civic leader, and Santa Monica’s first woman mayor Clo Hoover, both of whom were instrumental in having the trees planted in the 1960s.
The public then came to the podium in a generally dignified but sometimes exuberant appeal on behalf of the trees, including remarks by two of Girion’s sons, Marissa Rubin’s rendition of Joni Mitchell’s lyric about putting “all the trees in a tree museum,” Colette Divine’s audio impersonation of a chain saw, and John Quigley’s suggestion that the City name the 2nd Street “grove” after Hoover and the 4th Street “grove” after Girion.
The only speaker to defend the Landmarks Commission decision was Nina Fresco, who chairs the Commission, but while she did not think the trees met the designation criteria, she urged the Council to save the trees even if they were not “landmarks.”
After discussion among councilmembers, Mayor Katz’s suggestion that one of them make a motion was met with a thunderous silence. Eventually Bloom bit the bullet and moved that the appeal be denied. Councilmember McKeown offered a “friendly amendment” that the appeal be denied but that staff be directed to reconsider the entire matter, but that was rejected as “not friendly.” Then came the 5-1 vote, with McKeown dissenting and Councilmember O’Connor still out of town on city business.
In response to questions from Councilmember Shriver, City forester Warriner then went through the numbers on the trees to be removed and relocated, and he introduced Cy Carlberg, an independent consulting arborist retained by the City. She explained that a tree can be physiologically healthy but still be “structurally compromised,” as was the case with several of the trees in question. She also contended that it was “good urban forestry management” to have a mix in the species and age of downtown trees so they did not all die at the same time, either because of a blight specific to one species or because of all reaching their terminal age at one time.
And the Council then moved on to other business.
Director of Finance Carol Swindell presented recommended mid-year adjustments to the 2007-2008 budget, a five-year financial forecast to be used as background for the development of the 2008-2009 budget and the 2009-2010 budget plan, and a report on public budget priority meetings recently held by the City Manager.
More than 20 citizens addressed the Council on budget priorities, each urging funding for a particular program or priority. Ten speakers advocated more funding for the arts, including grants for individual artists, while four focused on the “greening” of Ocean Park Boulevard west of Lincoln Boulevard. Others spoke on behalf of everything from employment assistance in the Pico neighborhood, expanded transportation programs for seniors, and increased staffing for the Planning Department and the Landmarks Commission to the installation of a metal detector at City Hall.
Councilmembers each expressed their thoughts on budget priorities, adopted the mid-year adjustments to the 2007-2008 budget, and directed the staff to consider their comments in developing the 2008-2009 budget. Of particular note was the Council’s decision not to allocate at this time $5.8 million in available resources remaining after the mid-year adjustments, but to hold the money as an undesignated fund balance for the time being.