Neighbors Ask Public Works To Remove Ficus Trees On Lombard Street

Neighbors Ask Public Works To Remove Ficus Trees On Lombard StreetThe "Broccoli Block" of 300-600 Lombard St. Photo: Lance Carnes
Geri Koeppel
Published on June 04, 2015

A dozen neighbors along the 300–600 block of Lombard Street showed up at a Public Works hearing on Wednesday evening at City Hall to ask for the removal of 28 street trees they say are causing danger and liability.  

The block sees a lot of foot traffic from visitors heading from the "Crookedest Street" part of Lombard up to Coit Tower. Many are nervous because the trees are failing and causing property damage, they said, and could cause serious injury. One person spoke in favor of keeping the trees, but the crowd was overwhelmingly in support of removal. However, "there were also many letters that supported keeping the trees in the neighborhood for all of the benefits they bring," said Greg Crump of Public Works, who was the hearing officer, in a phone call on Thursday.

Acting Forester Chris Buck laid out a compelling case for removal of the trees, showing slides of each individual tree and the problems with structure and health that make them a threat. (The photos in this article are provided by him.)

All are within the 300–500 block of Lombard Street, which is known as the "Broccoli Block" for its lush canopy of ficus. Of the 94 trees on that part of the street, 50 are ficus. If the 28 trees are removed, 27 would be replaced with another species. 

But beautiful as they may be, the trees are failing due to improper pruning over time. “One challenge with maintaining ficus trees is they require very early, very vigilant structural pruning,” Buck said. And that hasn’t happened. Forty years ago when they were planted, he said, there wasn’t much communication with property owners, and pruning guides have changed over the years. The damage has been done. “It’s hard to prune some of these trees now to address all of these structural issues we’re finding," Buck said.

When ficus aren't pruned correctly, they tend to grow multiple, co-dominant stems of similar size, instead of having a large main trunk with smaller branches. "It's the co-dominant leaders that tend to break apart in wind," Buck said. In an interview on Thursday, he said he wasn't sure how many trees had failed in the 300-500 block of Lombard, but that neighbors were concerned because of repeated ficus tree failures on Hyde Street and in the 600 block of Lombard near Joe DiMaggio Playground and by Tel-Hi Neighborhood Center.

Buck went through the slide show of 28 trees to illustrate the main concerns with each, which was followed by public comment. Twelve neighbors took the podium for their maximum two-minute input. Margie Hollister said one of the trees on her property failed and crushed three cars. "Luckily, it was the day after Halloween, so kids weren't on the street," she said. Six months later, another limb fell. "I love having big, beautiful trees," she said, but added that they're a safety hazard.

May Gebhardt said at one point, a fire truck hook and ladder couldn't access the alley to fight a fire because a large ficus tree was blocking the way. She said the roots also cause damage to plumbing, sewers and sidewalks.

Another man said his tenants in wheelchairs couldn't get past the tree on the sidewalk because there was only 24 inches between the tree and his building. And, he said, property owners are liable if anyone gets hurt. 

Joan Wood spoke in favor of keeping the trees. "There should have been regular maintenance of these trees if they’re so risky," she said. Another neighbor said the residents are "mourning the loss of what will be close to 30 percent of the trees on Lombard," and while they support it, they'd like a cohesive plan for replacement. 

A major ficus mess on Hyde Street. Photo via SF Public Works.

Susan Weidmer, another Lombard Street building owner, thanked Buck for thoroughly inspecting the trees. "I'm so grateful finally someone has come, looked at the trees and realized there's a problem," she said. "Take the ones out that are questionable; don't wait. I hope the action comes real fast in clearing up this mess." A round of applause followed.

Closing the hearing, Crump said neighbors will be notified of a decision within a few weeks. Neighbors still can appeal that decision as well, so it's way too early to say whether the decision will be made for removal, let alone how soon the trees would be removed or when and how they'd be replaced.

For more the complex set of issues facing San Francisco's street trees, be sure to check out our article from this past January.