Petition aims to halt tree removals around Civic Center's Main Library

Ficus trees in front of the Main Library's Grove Street entrance. | Photo: Carrie Sisto/Hoodline
By Carrie Sisto - Published on October 18, 2018.

A community petition has been launched to save 19 ficus trees slated for removal near the Main Library at the corner of Grove and Hyde streets.

The Main Library has been working with SF Public Works to develop a strategy to replace the existing ficus trees, Mindy Linetzky, manager of communications and public affairs for the San Francisco Public Library told us. 

The ficus trees "have grown quite large and are lopsided due to the proximity of the building, and with the very heavy pedestrian and vehicle traffic around the library, we are very concerned about the potential for serious injury if one topples over or has a major limb failure." Linetzky said.

The dense foliage of the ficus trees creates a "dark tunnel effect" on the narrow sidewalks near the library which leaves some patrons feeling unsafe, she added. The roots are also starting to cause sidewalk fractures in some areas.

The Bureau of Urban Forestry and Public Works plan to remove the trees under a 2014 standing order that allows ficus trees in particular to be removed if they seem likely to break or die.

According to the order, trees can be removed due to a high potential for “failure” if they meet on or more of the following criteria:

  • The tree is at least 50 feet tall 
  • The tree has competing/codominant trunks
  • The live canopy makes up less than 30 percent of the tree or is in decline
  • The roots have been pruned two or more times
  • The tree has a history of limb failures
  • The canopy or main trunk conflicts with streetlights or power lines

Under the rules of the order, all ficus trees removed would have to be replaced with “a more suitable species of tree.”

The petition, launched by John Nulty, claims the city plans to remove the ficus trees to reduce maintenance costs associated with the upkeep of street trees, which San Franciscans in 2016 voted to make the responsibility of the city. It has more than 1,000 signatories as of press time, and is aiming for at least 1,500. 

Ficus trees on the corner of Grove and Hyde streets | Image: John Nulty/change.org

Prior to the November 2016 adoption of Proposition E, the costs associated with street tree maintenance were the responsibility of the property owner adjacent to the trees. Property owners were assessed a $339 administrative fee on top of covering the cost of tree removal and replacement.

The Change.org petition alleges that the city is trying to reduce maintenance costs now that the upkeep of the urban forest fully falls on the city’s dime. 

“ ... removing this many trees reduces maintenance costs in the long run for the City but also further diminishes the size and volume of our urban forest canopy, already the smallest (at 16 percent) of any major American city today,” the petition states.

The already mature ficus trees on site provide needed shade to the area, serve as urban wildlife habitat, and improve the environment in the local area by absorbing storm water and helping reduce air pollutants, according to the petition.

Nulty has filed an appeal to the tree removal plans, which will be heard at the San Francisco Board of Appeals public hearing on December 12, 2018.

The Main Library would like to replace the ficus trees with red maples as quickly as possible, but has to wait until the outcome of the appeals hearing in December, Linetzky said.

Species like red maples have more open canopies than the dense foliage of ficus trees, and can allow more light and air through to the sidewalks surrounding the library, she said.

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