When I lived in Texas the summer of 2001, there were two things I missed the most about Mobile. Surprisingly, the first was our summer rainstorms. Sure, there was rain in the Lone Star State, but it just wasn’t like our rain. The kind of rain that takes all day to formulate — with the unbearable heat and humidity slowly simmering until the atmosphere just can’t take it anymore and finally explodes — returning all of the day’s collected moisture right back to us. I missed those drenching, cleansing, almost-every-evening Gulf Coast summer baptisms.
But not as much as I missed our oak trees.
There was just something about driving out of the Bankhead Tunnel and down Government Street under the oaks, especially between Broad and Ann. That canopy felt comforting, its branches extending out to hug you and say “welcome home.”
We are known as the Port City and the Azalea City, but we could also be known as the City of Oaks. So it was of no great surprise last week when Mobilians were absolutely outraged to learn several beautiful oaks situated on a lot across from Bienville Square were being hacked down to make way for a Hilton Garden Inn. One woman even chained herself to one of the trees in protest, as others drove by honking and screaming profanities at the developer and workers. I just happened to be downtown when they were cutting the last few down and it was jarring to witness.
Apparently the planning commission did not notice the trees weren’t included in all of developer Mike Cowart’s plans, who also went through the Mobile Tree Commission, a division of Urban Development, and had the proper permitting to remove all of the trees except one, which resulted in a $298 fine. The city added there was really nothing they could do anyway, as all of this occurred on private property.
As one witness in Bienville Square kept saying, with the sound of chainsaws buzzing in the background, “It’s a sad day in Mobile.”
And it was. Sure, there will be trees replanted but I imagine it will be those generic trees you always see on those types of developments. Even if they did replant the same type of oaks, most of us will be dead before they reach the same size as the fallen ones.
A sad day, indeed.
But they are gone, so now we need to look forward and decide how these matters should be handled in the future.
Should there be even tighter restrictions on all oaks of a certain size in the historic districts or maybe even city-wide? Even if they are on private property? But is that really a road we want to go down?
Is $298 a hefty-enough fine for when you don’t obtain the proper permitting for the ones that are on city property? It seems like some developers would gladly pay that fine so they could mow down however many trees they desired to put up a business that will ultimately make way more money than that.
Reading back over the minutes of the Mobile Tree Commission, this looks like an issue they deal with fairly routinely — Is the tree on public or private property? They even send city officials out to determine such. If it’s on public property or on the city right of way, they make a decision about it. If it’s on private, they say it’s the owner’s call. I imagine you don’t hear a peep about 95 percent of the trees removed for various reasons in this city. And you probably shouldn’t. Some of them do need to go. Even some of our beloved oaks.
But in this particular incident, the city should have realized the uproar this was going to cause. These trees were just an acorn’s throw from the iconic oaks in Bienville Square. They were one half of the canopy formed over Conception Street. How many Mardi Gras beads have been caught on their branches over the years? These particular trees were important to the iconic look of downtown.
At the very least, the commissions should have conveyed this to the developer. I mean, for heaven’s sake, people were losing their minds just a few months ago when trained arborists were simply climbing in the trees during a competition for such professionals in Washington and Bienville Squares. Did they really think cutting these trees down to stumps was going to go over well? Perhaps if the developer had known this, he would have worked a little harder to preserve at least some of them. This was just handled so poorly in that regard.
But adding insult to injury is the current design of the new hotel. I am not a hotel developer; if I were I’d be out on my yacht named “Check Out Time” (get it?), instead of writing this column, but why oh why would you put such a generic-looking building right across the street from one of the most beautiful and historic parks in the city? Those kinds of hotels belong on the Beltline, Mr. Cowart. Or at least on the outskirts of the entertainment district, like the Candlewood, but not on the most prime piece of downtown real estate. Geez.
A little ironwork and attention to the historic charm of the surrounding area would have made it a much more desirable-looking and welcomed development, and the tree slaughter would have been a little bit easier to swallow. And while I’m playing the role of hotel developer in print, who puts a hotel on the parade route and doesn’t put balconies on it? Those rooms would go for premium rates during “the Gras” and be booked solid years in advance, which I’m sure they have to realize as their lovely sister hotel down the street, the Hampton Inn, also owned by Hilton, can attest.
OK, now I just can’t stop.
Aaaannnndddd why would you put the parking on the Conception Street side next to the Square and have the rooms overlooking Joachim Street instead of the Square? I guess watching people line up at Labor Finders every morning is a preferable view. I don’t get it and that design is hideous, as is. I hear they are making some changes. I hope that’s the case.
I think everyone in this city is for a smart balance between development and preservation — whether it’s trees or buildings — and good common sense and better communication can be used to achieve such. And as we continue to grow, this is going to have to be something we’re prepared to address over and over again. And when you think about it, that’s actually a good problem to have. We just need to make sure we do it right because we’re not going to get many do-overs. Just ask Airport Boulevard.