Contractor mistake damages lone redwood tree at library

The redwood tree at the West Branch of the Berkeley Library that will have to be taken down. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

A towering redwood tree that was to be the focal point of the garden at the new West Branch of the Berkeley Public Library was so damaged by the contractor that it will have to be taken down, library officials announced Tuesday.

The contract with West Bay Builders required the company to take precautions to preserve the root structure of the redwood, but those measures were not followed, according to a letter Donna Corbeil, director of library services, sent out to neighbors. The contractor damaged the roots while excavating around the tree.

Dan Gallagher, the city’s forestry engineer, recently examined the tree’s roots and determined that they were so damaged that the tree is unstable and unhealthy.

“The result of severing those important roots is that the tree’s anchorage and stability has been compromised,” Gallagher was quoted as saying in the letter. “No reasonable alternatives to re-establishing the tree’s stability exist. The roots served a vital function that cannot be restored by any other means.”

The contractor will be removing the tree — which looks about 70 feet high — within the next few days, and will have to pay for the damage, said Corbeil. The Library Board discussed the issue Tuesday night and will address what kind of tree will replace the redwood when it considers the landscaping plan Nov. 14.

The news that the redwood tree would soon be cut down came as a shock to neighbors, who were already upset that the library project at 1125 University Ave. had entailed the cutting of five other redwood trees.

“It’s really shocking,” said Chaim Mahgel, whose family lives right next door to the library. He also owns Afikomen Judaica on Claremont Avenue. “It’s totally unbelievable. How many stands of redwood trees does a city have? You can’t just go out and plant more and expect them to grow back in 10 years.”

Nell Mahgel-Friedman said that the back of their apartment used to look out on a shady redwood grove. While there is more light now, there is also much more noise from University and San Pablo Avenues.

“The trees created a certain protection there, a quiet zone,” said Mahgel-Friedman. “With the redwood trees taken down it will be a changed experience.”

She doesn’t understand why the library could not have worked to preserve the redwood grove.

“What is most infuriating to me is why plans were made to build the library in a way that killed these trees,” said Mahgel-Friedman. “The small redwood grove that grew on the library grounds was a crown of the neighborhood, a small natural hidden gem in the midst of the urbanity and concrete. The library could have treasured this gift and adopted plans that protected and respected the trees, not sacrificed them for extra square footage.”

The library held numerous meetings with neighbors to talk about the library design, said Corbeil. The Mahgels did not attend, they said, which is why they were so surprised when the first redwood trees were cut down.

The library had intended to make the large redwood the centerpiece of a garden that could be seen from inside the library. The plan was to add native plants around the tree. Corbeil said the library will try to plant a mature tree in the redwood’s place. She does not anticipate there will be any delays in the construction of the new branch library. The branch at University Avenue shut down in May. The new building should be completed by the summer of 2013. Total construction costs, not including furniture and fixtures, are $7.5 million and are being paid through bonds authorized by Berkeley voters.

Read Donna Corbeil’s letter to neighbors.

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  • John Holland

    those measures were not followed


    Looks like it’s not the first time West Bay Builders have had this problem. They settled with the city of San Francicso over a lawsuit. They had another settlement with the Pleasanton School District, not to mention problems with Foothill DeAnza College.

    It sounds like this is modus operandi for West Bay Builders.

  • 3rdGenBerkeleyan

    so i sure hope the city will hold them accountable and with hold payment…but I’m sure they wont they will just say oh well it happened besides we are very busy trying to solve the whole worlds problems we cant be bothered with something so trivial as a few old redwood trees also there’s no protesters in these trees so they aren’t important! What a Joke!

  • The Sharkey

    Hopefully West Bay Builders will be smart enough to knock a good chunk off their bill to pay for their gross negligence rather than drag this into court.

  • berkopinionator

    Don’t let them drag the tree away for their own purposes. The tree belongs to the City, and it is likely worth a lot of money as lumber.  It should be cut up and turned into furniture inside the library at the contractor’s expense.

  • The Sharkey

    Hey, cool idea!

    I bet Artisan Burlwood Furniture on Ashby could do something cool with it.

  • Mbfarrel

    Not my favorite tree to live under however from Wikipedia:
     “Sequoia sempervirens ‘Growth of seedlings is very fast, with young trees known to reach 20 m (65 ft) tall in 20 years.’ ““It’s totally unbelievable. How many stands of redwood trees does a city
    have? You can’t just go out and plant more and expect them to grow back
    in 10 years.”

    Faster than you think.

  • Urthlove

    That’s my experience, too.

  • Leonardp

    Would not be a bad idea to state the location of this mishap, street?

  • Guest

    The library is located on University.

  • The West Branch is at 1125 University Avenue at San Pablo. We’ll add that to the story. Thanks.

  • Berkeleyan

    That is a great idea!!!   And ask the contractor to replant a large redwood sapling in place of the old one.