PoP-Ed: Did City Contractors Really Need to Cut Down Virtually Every Tree in Front of the Ross Elementary School?

The following PoP-Ed. was written by Charles A. Birnbaum and Nord R. Wennerstrom. PoP-Ed. posts may be submitted via email to princeofpetworth(at)gmail please include PoP-Ed. in the subject line.

At DC’s Department of General Services – why use microsurgery when there’s amputation?

This is a classic “right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing” – and the result disfigured a neighborhood. Mayor Gray, with the assistance of Casey Trees, is committed to increasing DC’s overall tree canopy to 40% by 2035. That’s a shared goal with a shared effort and requires adherence by city officials and DC residents alike. The DC Department of Transportation’s Urban Forestry Administration is the municipal agency in charge of this effort everywhere except on public school property – that’s the domain of the Department of General Services. Unfortunately, based on what recently occurred on the Ross Elementary School’s grounds at 1730 R Street, NW, DGS doesn’t care whether they needlessly eradicate large canopy trees.

Here’s what happened: early on New Year’s Eve day (note the timing), and without any prior public notice, several employees from the Andersen Tree Expert Co., contractors hired by DGS, began cutting down virtually every tree in front of Ross. Before the clear cutting could be temporarily halted, three of four large oaks – among the largest trees on the block – and a crabapple were cut down. One of the oaks was heaving out of the ground and had to go (it’s arterial roots likely severed during the school’s renovation this past summer – something we want an objective, third-party arborist to determine), but the remaining trees were perfectly healthy.

Continues after the jump.

Why were they cut down? We heard multiple reasons from the contractors and DGS. Andersen reps both on site and by phone said: [1] the trees had root rot due to super saturation of the soil – not true according to tree evaluation reports Andersen reps prepared only five days earlier; [2] the trees were unhealthy – not true according to Ward 4 arborist Joel Conlon who personally inspected the trees on Dec. 31; [3] the trees were causing leaks in the school’s basement – undetermined – the leaks were first noticed during Ross’ recent renovation; [4] DGS spokesperson Kenneth Diggs said the trees were causing the sidewalks to buckle – also not true; and [5] in order to waterproof the basement, a trench would need to be dug around the perimeter of the building, which necessitated the trees’ removal. DGS officials and Andersen reps insisted an arborist OK’ed the clear cutting, but the arborist was an Andersen employee – not a city arborist – and Andersen was paid by the tree to cut down the Ross trees.

DGS’s Diggs claims the agency did everything by the book – perhaps, but they have been less than forthcoming about how and why the tree demolition decision was reached. DGS’s Diggs assures us new trees will be planted and says Andersen recommends cherries and dogwoods (does Andersen get that contract, too?) – but those are not large canopy trees like oaks. James Urban, perhaps the nation’s leading authority on soils and trees in urban settings, suggests canopy and root pruning along with careful excavation at Ross would have allowed workers room to do needed external waterproofing without destroying the trees.

Unfortunately, as DGS spokesperson Darrell Pressley said in a January 14, 2013 email, DGS never considered any waterproofing construction options for Ross’ basement that would also have protected the trees – that’s right, these trees were doomed from the start. Remarkably, in a January 2, 2013 email response to Ward 2 Council Member Jack Evans about the Ross situation, DGS Director Brian Hanlon wrote: “I never take lightly the removal of any tree.” (Imagine if DGS were in charge of RGIII’s healthcare, rather than microsurgery for his knee, they would have amputated his leg).

Technically the trees are on public school property, but they’re also a shared neighborhood asset. Fortunately, Stephanie Maltz, our newly elected ANC commissioner immediately got involved – now more is needed. To prevent DGS and their proxies from disfiguring other neighborhoods with impunity, the ANC and the DC City Council should support the recommendations of Casey Trees, especially the consolidation of DC’s tree management under DDOT’s Urban Forestry Administration.

Charles A. Birnbaum, FASLA

Nord R. Wennerstrom

23 Comment

  • Sad. Typical DC gov’t ineptitude, though.

  • There is unrest in the forset, there is trouble with the trees….

  • Gray sucks.

    • Shut up! It was a simple cost benefit analysis. Spends tens of thousands more to waterproof in a certain way or cut the trees and replant later.

  • While I’m not saying that they didn’t overcut, are the pictures above really a fair basis for comparison? One is taken, I am going to guess, early fall, when there are leaves on the branches, and the second looks to be a winter shot with no leaves. There are trees still there, but it’s unclear how much they’ll cover.

    • My thoughts exactly. Doesn’t look like a dramatic change when factoring in the seasonal difference in the two pictures.

    • Click on the picture to see a larger version – it’s still a little hard to see but I see three fewer trees inside the black fence in the “after” picture. I don’t know exactly how much canopy that will leave but it is certainly less than with 3 trees more, right?

      • Indeed, but does fewer = “virtually every tree” being cut down?

        • exaggeration is the best thing in world.

        • Well, if there were four to start with and there are now 3 fewer, then it’s pretty close to “virtually every tree”.

          Seriously though, I’m not picking sides here, I was just trying to clarify what’s in the pictures.

          • Nonsense. “Virtually every” is a hand-wringing, alarmist statement designed to elicit a response. There are many people unhappy about the tree removal, but OPs aren’t doing themselves any favors with their over-the-top, self-important campaign.

          • First, settle down there, captain. As I said I’m not picking sides.

            Second, go to a dictionary and look up the meanings of the three words in the phrase “virtually every tree”. Whatever the motives or intentions that you’re reading into the original post, what I said is most definitely not nonsense.

  • OPs’ credibility on this issue went out the window when they sent a very similar (but nastier) email to a number of people, including Jack Evans and various media folks, skewering Ross’s principal for being a bad neighbor. Do you plan on publicly apologizing to her, considering that she didn’t know anything about this?

  • Well, did an arborist from the UFA sign off on this? Any removal of a special tree (circumference > 55″) from a non-exempt species needs a permit. If the contractor got that permit then the rules were followed. However, that wouldn’t answer the question as to why the permit was granted in the first place. The permit should list the reasons for removal of any healthy tree, and should list the specific reasons that necessitate the removal of damaged trees.

  • I prefer my children to be organic and shade grown. Dislike.

    -The Big Bad Wolf

  • To “Anonymous”, unclear how the benefits are calculated in the “simple cost benefit analysis.”

    To “dc_mike”, etc., our “before” photo was taken the day before Hurricane Sandy, and shows the four oaks and a single crabapple. The “after” photo was taken on January 3, 2013 and shows the sole remaining oak (the branch in the upper right hand corner is from a tree across the street from Ross). We think removing four of five trees – virtually every tree – is not an exaggeration.

    To the other “Anonymous”, we did have a very pleasant conversation with Principal Searl who told us that she was unaware the work would be undertaken (apparently DGS’ lack of notification is standard operating procedure). As we told Principal Searl, ANC 2B03 Representative Maltz and others, we stand ready to work with the school, etc. on remediation.

    To “anon”, there are conflicting opinions about whether Urban Forestry had to sign off on this or even whether a permit was required. We’ve been told the city and utilities are exempt from permits. We’ve also been told the opposite, but that the city has never been legally challenged for not getting permits. We do know that trees at least 18″ caliper require a permit (which is a very permissive threshold compared with other cities nationally). Hence the need for clarified urban forestry management.

    • This does not address the fact that you shot first and asked questions later. I and many others have seen that nasty email you sent out, and it was completely uncalled-for. You disparaged the principal to people who could affect her career without asking her first if she knew what was going on.

      Having a pleasant conversation after the fact does absolutely nothing.

    • “Thanks.” I “stand corrected.”

  • There will be a representative from Dept. of General Services at the next ANC 2B meeting to provide more information about this issue. This meeting will be on Wednesday, February 13 at 7 pm at the Brookings Institution (1775 Massachusetts Avenue NW). Community members are encouraged to attend to learn more.

  • Was the neighborhood made aware of the planned work? If so, there should have been a meeting with the contractors beforehand AND someone on hand with the ability to immediately contact a city official, when the contracting work was done. A similar horror happened in New York when a whole NY City block of perfectly healthy huge trees, planted right after the Armistice of WWI were COMPLETELY cut down by contractors. Conractors don’t live in or care about the neighborhood they are working in — that is why the neighborhood NEEDS to become involved BEFORE this happens. Trees today are ourl ifelines– they clean the polluted air amd bring down hot city temperatures with their shade. AND they are homes to birds and other tree dwelling animals.

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