Mayor Sandy Stimpson has targeted 17 mature live oak trees downtown for removal, claiming in a June 13 letter to the Mobile Tree Commission “it is or may become reasonably necessary to do so to prevent a public hazard or to provide efficient or economical service to the public.”
Stimpson further alleges the oaks are undermining sidewalks, creating tripping or obstruction hazards, and threatening the integrity of the foundation of the History Museum of Mobile, a building listed as National Historic Landmark in 1974.
The oaks border the museum and the Gulf Coast Exploreum on Royal, Church and Government streets downtown, and the tree commission is expected to consider the mayor’s application (posted below) at its regularly scheduled meeting June 21 at 5:30 p.m. at the Parks and Recreation headquarters at 48 N. Sage Ave.
Stimpson and the tree commission both came under fire last year after a developer removed nine “heritage” oak trees across from Bienville Square to lay the foundation for a new Hilton Garden Inn, which is currently under construction on North Conception Street. “Heritage” trees, as defined by city code, are those with a trunk diameter of greater than 20 inches.
The episode near Bienville Square resulted in minor protests and a widely circulated petition asking the developer to replace the trees. Eventually, he was fined $298 for removing one of the trees without obtaining the necessary permit.
Attached to the mayor’s application is an opinion column by Bill Finch, chief science and horticulture advisor at the Mobile Botanical Gardens, published May 23 on al.com, addressing the oak trees around the museum, which previously served as Mobile’s City Hall. Finch compared the live oaks to circus animals, and advised the city not to contain them to “tiny cages,” or essentially, no larger than 25-square-foot openings cut in the concrete of the sidewalks.
“There are no easy compromises when it comes to keeping elephants or live oaks,” Finch wrote. “… No, we’re not going to give up our live oaks. But we are going to finally have to acknowledge that they are the great and beautiful beasts they are. And at some point, very soon, we’re going to have to quit trying to force them to perform in the tiny cages we have made for them.”
Today, Finch elaborated, saying the city has asked him to compile a list of trees that would be more appropriate for sidewalk planting.
“It’s a long list,” Finch said. “I love old trees and and I love old buildings and that is an incredible building. The roots of those live oaks are infiltrating that building and it’s not stopping at this point, it’s accelerating.”
Finch said the trees were planted roughly the same time as those removed from near Bienville Square last year — sometime after Hurricane Frederic in 1979.
“Find any picture you want of downtown Mobile up until 1970 and you won’t find (sidewalk) trees,” he suggested. “The trees were in the parks and people’s yards. These are narrow streets and they never had trees. There is not a historic reason to [plant them].”
In the early years of Mobile, Finch said, sidewalk shade was provided by balconies, something much better preserved in New Orleans today and an architectural embellishment rarely included in modern building plans.
“Ideally, we’d deal with it the way the French Quarter deals with it,” he said. “We had these beautiful balconies and in the French Quarter those balconies are used for planting and create great shade. If you want trees, there are indeed trees that can work in narrow situations and in many cases the city has done a great job. But I don’t think there’s a model …”
Finch said a greater risk is that the city’s existing live oaks, when contained, planted in corridors, and trimmed, are more susceptible to disease, and those diseases can spread to healthy, natural oaks. Furthermore, he said a proliferation of live oaks didn’t exist in Mobile until after the area was colonized — it was originally a longleaf and slash pine forest.
“If we’re not careful, regardless of the history, we could lose all our live oaks,” Finch said, citing the disease that killed many of the area’s dogwood trees a generation ago.
Late this afternoon Stimpson issued a statement noting the tree removal is primarily a result of ADA compliance.
“We must ensure our entire city is accessible to every citizen and guest,” he said. “These changes are a testament to our commitment to full accessibility allowing everyone living and visiting Mobile to experience our city’s newest park and the country’s longest running city hall.”
The statement also said, “in addition to blocking access ways, the tree roots are pushing up the electrical lines and conduit of the foundation of the street light cabinet and could eventually compromise the power to the street lights resulting in a public safety issue for citizens.”
Stimpson noted the city is undergoing a comprehensive review of its zoning requirements and ordinances, one component of which “will include consideration about landscaping and planting requirements that focus on native, less invasive vegetation that can flourish and generate street facing appeal without undermining the integrity of infrastructure or buildings.”
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