Seeing the Trees for the Forest

July 17, 2012

If developers have their way, no tree that falls in Emeryville will ever make a sound. Those trees will go away quietly or accidentally or inadvertently, and, in many cases, illegally. But you can bet that if trees impede a developer’s cheaper, faster way to build a strip mall or condo high rise with faux amenities and lots and lots of parking, they’ll come down, one way or another.

Believe it or not, it appears that trees even get in the way of making more trees!

The developer of the future “Parkside” apartment/retail development on Stanford between Hollis and Doyle streets is going to chop down (with the City Council’s blessing) 33 mature trees to make room for – are you ready? – a park!

Emeryville Mayor Jennifer West is among many residents none too happy about developers’ endless assault on the city’s trees. West, who was not able to vote on any aspect of “Parkside” because she lives a block away, said in her blog, “I find it surprising that the park could not be designed to incorporate and enhance the mature trees that are already on the site. When I look at the project, I see that some of the trees … might have been retained with careful planning. If the developer and architect don’t value the trees … at least the city council … should see the value in keeping them.”

Or the cost of losing them. According to West, instead of asking the developer to pay $52,100 for the removal of 10 trees along Stanford, as provided by our Urban Forestry Ordinance, city staff shamelessly recommended that the City Council deem 9 of the 10 trees “nuisance trees.” That would have knocked the fee down to $4,447 (to pay for the one tree that does not constitute a “nuisance”). However, in a rare move, the Council did not follow the staff’s recommendation, but agreed to waive the fee if the developer plants new trees to make up for the ones they destroyed. The Secret News has yet to confirm how many, or how big, those will be.

“When will we start asking developers to work around existing trees?,” Mayor West asks. “When will we ask for the appropriate fees to help fund the planting of more street trees … ? Why is the staff trying to reduce the importance of trees and the fees we have in place to deter cutting these trees down?”

Good questions. And a meeting tonight presents an opportunity to get some answers.

Mayor West is inviting residents to attend a study session 6:30 pm TONIGHT at City Hall, before the regular Council meeting, to hear from the city’s arborist and talk about trees in town. West invites residents to “come and listen, speak, and share your views. If you cannot attend, please consider writing to city council members (and Planning Commissioners) expressing your views …”

In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, Jim Robbins, author and journalist who writes frequently on science and the environment, talks about the importance of trees. The article is excerpted here:

Why Trees Matter

We have underestimated the importance of trees. They are not merely pleasant sources of shade but a potentially major answer to some of our most pressing environmental problems. We take them for granted, but they are a near miracle. …

For all of that, the unbroken forest that once covered much of the continent is now shot through with holes.

Humans have cut down the biggest and best trees and left the runts behind. …

What we do know … suggests that what trees do is essential though often not obvious. … Trees are nature’s water filters, capable of cleaning up the most toxic wastes, including explosives, solvents and organic wastes, largely through a dense community of microbes around the tree’s roots that clean water in exchange for nutrients, a process known as phytoremediation. Tree leaves also filter air pollution. A 2008 study by researchers at Columbia University found that more trees in urban neighborhoods correlate with a lower incidence of asthma.

In Japan, researchers have long studied what they call “forest bathing.” A walk in the woods, they say, reduces the level of stress chemicals in the body and increases natural killer cells in the immune system, which fight tumors and viruses. Studies in inner cities show that anxiety, depression and even crime are lower in a landscaped environment.

Trees also release vast clouds of beneficial chemicals. On a large scale, some of these aerosols appear to help regulate the climate; others are anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral. We need to learn much more about the role these chemicals play in nature. One of these substances, taxane, from the Pacific yew tree, has become a powerful treatment for breast and other cancers. Aspirin’s active ingredient comes from willows.

Trees are also the planet’s heat shield. They keep the concrete and asphalt of cities and suburbs 10 or more degrees cooler and protect our skin from the sun’s harsh UV rays. … Trees, of course, sequester carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that makes the planet warmer. A study by the Carnegie Institution for Science also found that water vapor from forests lowers ambient temperatures.

A big question is, which trees should we be planting? Ten years ago, I met a shade tree farmer named David Milarch, a co-founder of the Champion Tree Project who has been cloning some of the world’s oldest and largest trees to protect their genetics, from California redwoods to the oaks of Ireland. “These are the supertrees, and they have stood the test of time,” he says.

Science doesn’t know if these genes will be important on a warmer planet, but an old proverb seems apt. “When is the best time to plant a tree?” The answer: “Twenty years ago. The second-best time? Today.”

Jim Robbins is the author of the forthcoming book “The Man Who Planted Trees.” For the full article, click here.

(To make a comment, or to read the comments of others, click on the headline to go to the story page, then scroll down to the bottom.)

One Response to Seeing the Trees for the Forest

  1. Will Leben on July 22, 2012 at 10:48 pm

    This post prompted me to write the Planning Commission and the four City Council members voting on Parkside. Of the responses, this one from a senior planner is the one that seems to add the most to our understanding of the agreement between the city and the developers:

    “As part of the project, the Parkside development will be reconstructing and widneing the sidewalks along Powell, Hollis and Doyle Streets. The trees that will be removed will be replaced in an enhanced structural soil environment. In addition, they will also pay the City the replacement value of the trees to be removed. This is approximately in the tune of $22,000. Two trees on Powell and two on Doyle will be preserved and the developor will post a bond that is three times the value of the four trees (approximately $90,000). If the trees are damaged or killed during construction then this bond amount will be used to replace the damaged trees. As you may also know, Parkside developers will also be designing and constructing an half an acre public park along Stanford Avenue.”

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