Santa Monica Tree Executions: What’s wrong with these pictures?

By Cary Shulman and Hillary Kaye

Nothing, except the City of Santa Monica is going to replace trees like the one on the left with trees like the one on the right. Suppose you need a tree in this era of global warming to absorb CO2 and pollution. This tree should also provide canopy shade to relieve the heat produced by urban concrete, cool in the summer, keep rainfall from the drains in winter and give a sense of neighborhood. Which tree would you choose? The big one? Not Santa Monica.

On Sept. 21 of this year, Santa Monica posted notices on 54 mature Ficus trees and 21 Palm trees on 2nd and 4th streets between Wilshire and Colorado announcing they were to be removed. You might ask what are the reasons offered for this ecological insanity that will cost million of dollars? Well they vary depending on whether they are being challenged or not.

At first, Santa Monica said they were removing 21 of the trees because they were diseased. When that was challenged, the reasons expanded to include internal decay, extensive root pruning, poor canopy structure, damaged canopies from oversized vehicles, design factors and too large for relocation.

A short walk to see the trees along 2nd and 4th street will reveal the truth. Healthy, mature trees with a lifespan of 150 years, bringing much needed tree canopy coverage to the downtown area. As for the gingko replacement trees, Knoxville’s Street Tree Master Plan said: “Rows of ginkgo trees are not recommended as street trees because of their slow growth and spindly appearance for many years.”

So what is up with all this? Removing Ficus trees that the Center for Urban Forest Research says is the second most beneficial tree in Santa Monica and has yearly netted the city $1 million over management costs because of it numerous benefits. Well the key phrase is “design” factors. It’s part of a $8 million redevelopment plan for 2nd and 4th streets.

Kathleen Rawson of The Bay District Corporation, the consulting firm set up by the City of Santa Monica to aid in downtown planning, has said it plain. She would like to see 2nd and 4th streets become another 3rd Street Promenade, and that doesn’t include Ficus trees. To be fair, the Bay District Board originally split on the issue of removing the trees.

To give you some idea of what this “promenading” of downtown Santa Monica means there’s this quote from the Los Angeles Business Journal of January 8, 2001.

“Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade is undergoing a change of character as independent restaurants, increasingly falling victim to escalating rents, are driven to cheaper space on less trafficked streets.

Operating on narrow margins and unable to compete with their national retailer neighbors (corporate chains), independent restaurants have seen the popularity of the trendy retail strip, once their life blood, turn against them. In a matter of years, local real estate and retail observers said, the Promenade might resemble an indoor mall of chain stores within a halo of restaurants on Second, Fourth, Broadway and Wilshire.”

So in effect this plan will not only destroy 54 mature Ficus trees and 21 Palm trees, but also the “halo” of small businesses on 2nd and 4th streets with them. All vestiges of what made Santa Monica unique will soon be gone. In its place a clone of urban malls everywhere. Just how many Tommy Hilfiger stores does a country need?

What we are dealing with here is not just gentrification but corporatization. Who else can pay the soaring rents charged by real estate speculators. And since the downtown area will be just a corporate clone, it will have to compete with the other look-alikes for attendance. And so the spiral of development and overdevelopment will be everlasting. The escalating cost of real estate per square foot will inevitably send building skyward.

So what does the public say about preserving the trees and Santa Monica. Plenty, only the City Council isn’t listening. Shortly after the plan was introduced in 2005, business owners on 4th street organized a petition that was signed by more than 1,600 tree supporters. After the removal notices were put up on Sept. 21 of this year, the issue really heated up.

The following day the Treesavers, a group started by activist Jerry Rubin, green ribboned every tree along 2nd and 4th streets with the words “Save the Trees.” By 6 am the next morning the city of Santa Monica had seen to it that their signs were taken down to silence their voices of protest to try to limit public awareness.
The fact that the trees could be removed at any moment swelled the Treesaver ranks. They now included John Quigly, the environmentalist who tree sat for a year to save a 400-year-old Pico Oak Tree in Santa Clarita that came to be called “Old Glory.”

The internet and newspapers took up the Santa Monica Ficus story and the public which had largely been uninformed about the pending destruction now added their voices to the protests. In a manner more suited to Cornelius Vanderbilt than an elected body, the City Council has ignored all this, in effect saying, “The public be damned.”

The “damned” public meanwhile have filed for Landmark status for the trees. This latest development essentially stalls any work on the trees until the Landmarks Commission brings the matter up during one of its scheduled meetings anytime within the next 65 days. The commission probably won’t hear the matter until its December meeting.

It remains to be seen whether Santa Monica’s reputation as a “green city” refers to its environmentalism or just refers to the color of all the money it makes its developers.

For more information on the trees and to sign their petition: and

Posted: Thu - November 1, 2007 at 02:11 PM