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Frank Gruber

Summer's Over

By Frank Gruber

The summer slowdown has ended -- it was a busy week at both the City Council and the Planning Commission.

Although I've written 356 columns about Santa Monica, there are plenty of issues in this always percolating little pot of a city that I've never touched. One is the controversy over the replacement of aging ficus trees on Second and Fourth Streets downtown.

Maybe my silence is surprising. My office is in the old Central Tower Building on Fourth, and I walk on the street, and under the spreading ficus trees, every working day.

Also, when I was on the Planning Commission ten years ago, I served on the Downtown Design Working Group. Although the current plans for Second and Fourth were developed after my time, I was involved in the prior phases of the downtown redesign which established the parameters.

It's possible I've been controversy-adverse. A friend with an office down the hall from me is passionate about saving the trees and, let's face it, it's hard to argue against living, transpiring trees.

But I'll give the City Council, City Staff, and the all the people who showed up at the meetings from which the replacement plan emerged my belated support. The final plan, to remove 54 trees, about one-third of the total, and replace them with 139 new trees, is a good one.

Thirty-one of the 54 -- those that are healthy -- will be transplanted elsewhere. According to the City's Community Forester, Walt Warriner, the City has had extremely good results transplanting trees like these -- typically a 95 percent success rate.

As I said, I walk nearly every day on Fourth Street -- but because of the dense ficus trees, it's gloomy. If I can, I walk on the sunnier and airier Promenade. The evergreen ficus trees, which never change with the season, and which are too solid even to rustle in a breeze, turn the sidewalks into tunnels. The deciduous trees the City planted on Santa Monica Boulevard and Broadway a few years ago are much better, and they're but youngsters

The ficus are getting old -- they are more than 40 years old, and they are expected to have life spans of only ten or 20 more years. They have been weakened by root-pruning. This is a minor concern, as there have been numerous incidents in the city of old trees dropping limbs or even falling over.

Now is the time to begin their staged replacement. As Walt Warriner testified at City Council last week, instead of doing something anti-environmental, as the plan's critics have charged, the plan was a good example of "progressive urban forest management."

So far every phase of the downtown redesign, starting with the Promenade, continuing through getting rid of the one-way streets and then widening the sidewalks on Santa Monica and Broadway, and building the transit mall, has had its doubters. Disaster has been predicted at every phase. Yet each change has turned out to be an improvement -- downtown is a more attractive environment than ever.

No one likes to see a tree cut down. The only recompense is to plant new trees -- a gift we can give to the next couple of generations.

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I found a sad parallel between the controversy about the ficus trees and the issue that came before the Planning Commission last week about the redevelopment of the mobile home park on Colorado near Stanford. (see story)

The parallel is this: just as everyone knows that city street trees will not stand forever, neither will mobile homes. There are some things that by their natures are not permanent.

But change is not easy, especially on those who don't have the financial wherewithal to have a lot of options when it comes to housing.

In evaluating the downtown trees, the City determined that 31 of those that the City wanted to remove are healthy enough to transplant, and at a significant cost, the City will transplant these trees. It seems like we should be at least as solicitous to the needs of displaced residents as we are of displaced trees, and it's good to note that finding new homes for existing mobile home residents was the issue that the Planning Commission focused on last week.

* * *

Speaking of the Planning Commission, the City Council made two strong appointments to the commission last week. I don't know either Gleam Davis or Jim Reis personally, although I interviewed Ms. Davis when she ran for City Council, but they both seem to have the right skills and temperaments to be good commissioners. (see story)

In fact, their skills aren't that different from those of the two commissioners they replaced, Barbara Brown and Darrell Clarke. Both Ms. Davis and Ms. Brown are lawyers, and both Mr. Reis and Mr. Clarke have strong backgrounds in planning and interests in sustainable development. Time will tell whether they have the same or different perspectives on development and growth.

Listening to the City Council make a string of appointments to boards and commissions last week, as always it was heartening to be able to reflect on the high quality of the volunteers who are attracted to public service in Santa Monica.

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