Yesterday the city of Palo Alto completed its removal of some 50 trees, mostly holly oak (Quercus ilex), from sidewalks and medians on California Avenue. This is the first phase of an urban facelift that promises additional pedestrian-friendly features such as crosswalks, benches, and new red maple (Acer rubrum) shade trees.
It's a bit disturbing, especially for someone in my business, to witness the clear-cutting of an entire business district. And the barren streetscape is particularly shocking for anyone who hasn't been there since, oh, Monday. But what seems to be most upsetting for people is the fact that, for most of us, this was an utter surprise.
My studio is located on Cal Ave, and I can attest that the city did reach out with mailers advertising public meetings and soliciting comment. But none of us was told that the project was moving forward, nor given a timetable. When I called Public Works on Tuesday (when the tree removal began), I was told only that "it's part of a remodel for the street." No proposed plans on file, no renderings to review.
As Jeff Gatlin of the Daily Post reports (sorry, no link, they think "giving away news online is a dumb way to do business"), reactions on my street range from resigned to furious. The owner of Leaf and Petal thinks the removals should have been done "in increments like a fifth at a time". The manager of Szechuan Cafe thinks "it was a bad idea to cut trees that were here for 30 years." Next door, excellent Mexican restaurant Palo Alto Sol lost a huge tree that shaded several of its tables; owner Hector Sol was as hot as his salsa rojo, saying "Whoever did this is an idiot… now customers refuse to sit where they used to ask to be seated."
For what it's worth, I feel that (1) all the trees should have been taken out, and replaced, at one time — a patchwork of old and new would have looked particularly odd; (2) the deciduous, colorful red maples will be an improvement over the evergreen, dark holly oaks; and (3) Hector's food really is excellent.
But there's a lesson in here about the emotional attachments people form with their landscapes.
For better or worse, we were used to the holly oaks. Sure, their deluge of acorns made walking a bit treacherous each fall. Sure, they misted sap onto cars, people and bikes each spring, Sure, they were massive and not particularly pretty. But they were "ours," they shaded us while we sat and dined and socialized, they added a vertical dimension to a low-slung avenue, they softened the aging concrete facades. We loved those old trees — we just didn't know it until they vanished.
Twenty years from now, we will have the same attachment to the red maples. I can only hope that, if future planners decide to remove those, they will have learned that we all would appreciate a little more time to prepare our hearts for the loss.