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City Chops Down Ficus Trees

By Jorge Casuso

May 16 -- Averting a possible showdown in the media spotlight by giving no warning, the City early Friday morning chopped down 23 ficus trees along 2nd and 4th streets Downtown.

The move came less than two days after an Appeals Court on Wednesday rejected a case filed by Treesavers in March and lifted a temporary stay order, paving the way for an $8.2 million streetscape project that called for removing and relocating 30 of the 157 ficus trees.

“After we received the Court decision in favor of the City, we moved expeditiously in an attempt to make up for seven months of lost time,” City Manger Lamont Ewell wrote in an email to the City Council Friday.

Sawdust and dirt covering hole left after ficus tree was removed on 2nd street (Photo by Frank Gruber)

“This has increased the cost of the project by over $100,000.00 dollars,” Ewell said. “We also felt it important to carry this work out as early as possible to minimize the impact to the public and businesses.”

Members of Treesavers -- the grassroots group that staged public demonstrations, packed the council chambers and took the City to court six months ago -- rushed to the scene too late to chain themselves to the trees and put into practice the lessons they had learned in special civil disobedience classes.

“I thought I’d brush my teeth and rush out with the chains,” said Jerry Rubin, the group’s leader.

But it was too late. According to urgent, sometimes tearful, calls from fellow Treesavers, by mid morning the trees were all gone.

“I got a call at 9 a.m. from a Treesaver that was crying,” Rubin said. “Then I got another message. I got about ten messages.”

Rubin rushed to the scene and hastily organized a noon press conference that was covered by newspapers and television and radio stations. He wanted to give the term “stump speech” its original meaning, but was denied by the City.

“I wanted to stand on a stump for my speech, but the City didn’t let me,” he said

Rubin managed to take “a little chunk of the tree” he plans to use as a talking stick during an evening vigil Friday in front of City Hall.

“I’m sad and somewhat angry that it came to his,” Rubin said. “There were ample opportunities to have more ample communication between the City and the community… We’re not going to give up.”

Rubin said the group will continue to fight the City’s plan to relocate seven of the ficus trees to other parts of the project area.

“We’re going to defend the final seven,” he said. “It shouldn’t come to physically defending them.

“I feel bad that we didn’t save those trees,” Rubin said. “I can’t help but feel that to a certain extent. We’re going to redouble our efforts.”

Rubin acknowledged that the original plan of having supporters -- including grandmothers and kids -- tie themselves to the trees would likely not have born fruit.

“Even if we chained ourselves, we’d be in jail and the trees would still be cut down,” Rubin said.

Treesavers will ramp up its efforts to lobby the council to form a Tree Commission that could help avert the kind of controversy that surrounded the ficus trees.

Council member Kevin McKeown, who opposed the plan to remove healthy trees with public money said the City should listen to the residents, 10,000 of whom, according to Rubin, signed a petition to save the trees.

“Anyone visiting our downtown today can see that the massive public outcry against cutting down our trees was simply ignored,” McKeown said. “I'm disappointed in the City's action, as I know many Santa Monicans are."

City officials, who said the 23 trees were structurally unstable, turned down to settlement offers from the group. One called for one or two independent arborists to render their opinion before removing the trees.

The other called for saving 14 of the trees the group says do not pose an imminent danger to public safety and leaving in place the seven trees slated for relocation.

The Downtown streets were reopened by 11 p.m., and the City is revving up to start the delayed streetscape project that calls for adding 120 new ginko trees, adding decorative up-lighting to the remaining ficus trees and repairing sidewalks or curbs damaged by their roots.

In addition, the project calls for enlarging tree wells, installing new pedestrian lighting to illuminate sidewalk areas, enhancing six mid-block crosswalks and adding accessibility improvements for the handicapped.

“The staff members of the City did an excellent job in planning and executing the work,” Ewell wrote in his email to the council. “I will keep you updated on our progress.”


"We moved expeditiously in an attempt to make up for seven months of lost time.” Lamont Ewell


“I thought I’d brush my teeth and rush out with the chains.” Jerry Rubin


“I wanted to stand on a stump for my speech, but the City didn’t let me."


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