The Mobile Tree Commission approved a city-sponsored plan to cut down more than four dozen trees — including live oaks — to make way for improvements to Broad Street.
Staring down a June deadline for more than $14 million in federal funds, city officials went before the Tree Commission at its Feb. 19 meeting to ask to be allowed to cut down 48 live oaks and 14 crepe myrtles so construction can begin on improvements to Broad Street and other downtown corridors, through a TIGER grant award. The commission voted 3-1 to approve the measure, with only Commissioner Jesse McDaniel voting against it. Vice Chairman Terry Plauche, Commissioner William Rooks and Commissioner Cleve Formwalt all voted in favor.
City Engineer Nick Amberger said the request was simply a second phase, or continuation of a plan already approved by the commission. He said everyone involved with the massive project is having to make concessions and the taking down of the trees is just part of the compromise.
Proponents of the project have asked that bike lanes and pedestrian walkways be added to the plans, Amberger said, and those plans would take up too much space to allow the 48 live oaks to thrive. He said the Alabama Department of Transportation had already allowed the project to reduce the lane size to 10 feet instead of the standard 12 feet for a U.S. Highway. The plan also calls for a “lane diet,” meaning Broad Street’s three lanes each direction will be reduced to two, according to Amberger.
The plan calls for the replanting of 216 trees, but none of those will be live oaks. According to the city, the replacement trees include 57 nuttall oaks as well as number of cypress varieties and myrtle varieties.
Most who spoke in opposition of the plan were in favor of the larger project, but thought it could be completed without removing so many live oaks. Kelly Baker, a downtown resident, questioned why no live oaks would be replacing the ones coming down.
“Where’s the compromise in taking down live oaks and not replacing them,” she asked. “That’s not a compromise. I don’t think we’re getting a compromise.”
Resident Harold Bolton argued that the proposed replacement trees as part of the plan would provide “no shade” and make it hard to use the planned improvements once they’re completed.
“Who is going to a job, who is going to walk, who is going to ride a bike in the hot summer sun with no shade,” he asked. “They’re not going to go there, and if they do they’re a fool.”
On the issue of shade, Urban Forester Peter Toler told the crowd that a nuttall oak could provide about as much coverage as a live oak in an urban environment.
Amberger said the plan retains 62 live oaks already, but there won’t be room with the impending changes to save more and, at the same time, allow them to thrive.
“You can’t cage up an elephant in a small box and expect him to survive,” he said. “That’s what we do when we plant live oaks on small strips of land.”
The commission contemplated delaying the vote until next month’s meeting, but Amberger asked that a vote be taken at Tuesday’s meeting because of a June deadline to have everything in place for the grant award.
In a somewhat unusual move, Mayor Sandy Stimpson used the bulk of his time to speak to the council on Tuesday, Feb, 26, about the plan. Like Amberger, Stimpson reiterated that many compromises had been made on all sides to make the project a reality. Stimpson said plans now include a lane-width reduction, the raising of sidewalks to match the height of bike lanes and other changes.
Given the varying width of the city’s rights-of-way along the corridor from Beauregard Street to Canal Street, Stimpson said it’s tough to fit everything in the design and leave the trees standing.
“When you try to shoehorn it all into the right-of-way there’s just so much you can get in there,” he said.
When asked by Councilwoman Bess Rich, consulting engineer Drew Davis, from Volkert, told councilors other materials were considered for the bike lanes and pedestrian walkways, but concrete was selected because it lasts longer. Permeable materials, Davidson said, would not necessarily save the trees.
Stimpson added that since trees and their trunks continue to grow, placing a tree in the middle of a bike lane “doesn’t make sense” because it could grow into the pathway.
For this latest phase, the Tree Commission approved the removal of 48 live oaks. When added to the first phase, the commission has approved the removal of a total of 67 live oaks of a total of 95 trees removed, Davis told councilors. Of those 67 live oaks, 15 are considered unhealthy, he said. Sixty-two live oaks will remain as part of the project.
When asked by Rich, Stimpson said buying up additional rights-of-way to help save the trees was considered too costly and time consuming.
Councilman Levon Manzie opposed taking down that many live oaks in his district, but added he was not against the larger project or the more than $20 million in federal, state and local money designated for the area.
“I’m not advocating we lose the $14.5 million in federal funds,” Manzie said. “That’s nearly $19 million in federal and state money being infused into District 2. It will take generations before we’d be able to see resources like that infused into this community.”
District 2 resident Bill Boswell formally asked Stimpson and officials in his office for a public presentation on the final design of the project.
Those opposed to the move, like Boswell, have also said they will appeal to the Mobile City Council. The item hasn’t yet been placed on a public agenda. Manzie said he expects a public hearing on the issue then, and reminded those in attendance there would not be one at the Feb. 26 meeting.
This story was updated at 8:54 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 28 to correct the total of trees to be removed.
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