LOS ANGELES — Activists who helped save a group of ficus trees in Hollywood from destruction praised the city’s move Dec. 7 to halt their removal, while also pointing to a recent report from a nonprofit that is critical of Los Angeles’ urban forestry management as proof that more resources are needed for tree protection.
The trees on the 1200 block of Cherokee Avenue were scheduled to be cut down according to a summer report from the Bureau of Street Services, which said the removals were needed in order to fix the sidewalks, but Councilman David Ryu last week announced a plan to save 14 of the 18 trees.
“We’re really thrilled that somebody woke up at City Hall, and that David Ryu is pushing for change,” Jill Stewart, executive director of the Coalition to Preserve LA, told City News Service. “I think there’s an awakening happening.”
A recent report commissioned by City Plants, a nonprofit organization running a public-private partnership between the city of Los Angeles and six other nonprofit organizations, was heavily critical of the city’s approach to its tree management. The report was prepared by Dudek, an environmental consulting firm.
According to the report, trees are not valued in city budgets and planning, urban forest budgets are far below necessary levels, and an estimated budget increase of $40 to $50 million is needed to manage the urban forest at a sustainable level.
Kevin James, president of the Board of Public Works, said he had not yet read the full report, but was familiar with some of its basic points, including that more investment is needed in the city’s tree management, which he said he “absolutely” agrees with.
James said city’s Urban Forestry Division was decimated during the Great Recession, but that there has been an effort by Mayor Eric Garcetti and other leaders to rebuild it, and that the budget for the current fiscal year allowed the city to hire 55 new Urban Forestry Division positions.
“We have had to rebuild from that at a time that there are other very serious budget priorities, and I’m pleased with that we’ve been able to do with the leadership of the mayor and the City Council,” James told City News Service. “I know that we have more work to do, and I know it’s not as fast as many people would like, but we have had to dig ourselves out of the rough times of the Great Recession.”
Two groups, United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles and Eastside Nature Alliance, took legal action to try and stop the Cherokee Avenue tree removals, and a court injunction put the final decision in the hands of the City Council.
Although it was not involved in the lawsuit, the groups were supported by the Coalition to Preserve LA, which organized several news conferences and demonstrations.
Stewart and the other activists used the Cherokee trees as an example to criticize the city’s entire urban forestry management, and said that the city is cutting down too many trees as part of its sidewalk repair program and that the loss of shade in the city will cause power outages and rising heat levels. The two groups also sought a temporary restraining order that would have stopped the city from removing trees as part of its $1.3 billion sidewalk repair program, although the restraining order failed in court.
Stewart was also critical of the Board of Public Works, and said in August the board was “stuck in the 80s” for approving the Cherokee removals.
She joked that the recent announcement showed the board and City Council are “still in the 90s, but I think that a handful of them are realizing that they are and have moved on.”
James said that the city has a thorough and thoughtful process on deciding if any tree in the city should be cut down as part of a sidewalk repair, and that the priority is always to preserve a tree when possible.
“When we have hearings, we have the luxury and the ability to provide the public a very detailed — sometimes very long — hearing with many chapters to try and find creative ways to save trees,” James said. “Our hearings on tree removals are sometimes an hour, two hours, or three hours.”
The ficus trees in the 1200 block of Cherokee Avenue are located at the site where a slip-and-fall incident led to the city agreeing to a $3 million settlement in April with a woman, Holli S. Breakfield, who hit her head on a sidewalk there on New Year’s Eve 2014 while being carried on the back of a man who “tripped on a pattern of defects,” according to her lawsuit.
The city’s 30-year sidewalk repair program is an effort to spend at least $31 million annually to repair or replace damaged sidewalks, and was enacted as the result of a 2015 settlement of a class action lawsuit brought by a group of disabled people who argued that the city was in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act by failing over decades to properly maintain its sidewalks. James said in August that the sidewalks on Cherokee are among the worst in the city, and the injuries Breakfield suffered played a role in his original vote to have the trees removed.
The Cherokee Avenue trees highlight a significant challenge for the city to complete needed sidewalk repairs while also attempting to save mature trees.
Since the summer, Ryu has introduced three motions with Councilman Bob Blumenfield he said will reform the city’s relationship to its urban forest, increase staffing and expertise at the Urban Forestry Division, and develop a long-range strategy for the city’s urban forest.
“Don’t you think it’s interesting that the city suddenly cares about the trees?” said Grace Yoo, a board member of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles and a candidate for the City Council District 10 seat, which is becoming vacant in 2020. “Is that what we have to do? We have to sue the city for the safe care about things that they say they care about, but it’s been lip service. What’s going on here?”
James said he personally went out to the site to try and help devise ways to save the trees, and that it is common for the board to try and save trees after a request from the community.
“We do this all the time, and we don’t get sued on every tree removal. I think we’ve been sued on two of them in the five-and-a-half years I’ve been here, and that was one of them,” James said. “In a lot of them, the community comes in and they ask us to go out and dig deeper, look harder. And that’s what sparks the additional work that we do. It’s not a lawsuit, it’s an interested property owner, it’s a neighbor, it’s an interested community organization.”
As a result of the work to save the Cherokee trees, the Bureau of Street Services issued a report last week outlining a plan to utilize a combination of root pruning, tree trimming and reduction in the sidewalk width as allowable by the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Stewart said she hoped the Dudek report would help guide the city leaders toward more investment in tree management.
“They are realizing there’s best practices out there, `Oh my god, it’s not rocket science and we have allowed the city to just fall years and years behind,’” Stewart said. “We have the money, we’ve got to find it in the budget.”