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

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