Berkeley neighbors mourn loss of their ‘gathering’ tree


The tree is brought down on Thursday Feb. 20. Photo: courtesy Tom and Louise Margolies

A fresh hole in the middle of the street. Sadness. Disappointment. Anger. Such is the story of a small street in far north Berkeley.

On Thursday Feb. 20, city workers removed an injured Coast Live Oak from Menlo Place in the city’s Thousand Oaks district, between Colusa Avenue and the Alameda. The tree, at least five decades old, and probably more, grew from the center of the street near the intersection with Santa Rosa Avenue, with traffic navigating around it.

Or trying to.

After a truck hit the tree in December, severing a major limb, city officials deemed it too sick and weak for salvation, and a public hazard. This, in spite of an impassioned campaign by neighbors to save the oak.

Oak with severed limb

The oak tree in Berkeley’s Menlo Place after it was hit by a truck and lost a limb. Photo: Ira Serkes

“It has been my delight and my companion for the 45 years that I’ve been in this house,” said Menlo Place resident Sandra Gilbert. “And it has also long-helped to keep our street safe for our children by slowing traffic. . .  I find its removal shattering.”

“I think the city was high-handed and peremptory, and I wish we could have worked together as a group to find a way to save this tree. Our neighborhood is, after all, known as “Thousand OAKS,” she said.

Even before the accident, the oak wasn’t in the best of health, showing the wear and tear of the years, including some disease. But neighbors collectively did what they could to shore it up. To them, the tree was far more than a venerable natural landmark. It served as a gathering spot for neighborly business and play, a center point of meetings and parties.

“For years, our street and surrounding neighbors on adjacent streets have gathered at the tree on the last Sunday of every month to socialize, share information and discuss important neighborhood issues. These gatherings bring together young and old, new arrivals and neighborhood veterans, owners and renters,” said local resident Susan Orbuch.

But the December collision proved fateful.

“Staff understands the desire of the nearby residents to preserve the tree,” wrote Dan Gallagher, the city’s Senior Forestry Specialist and a certified arborist, in a Feb. 12 letter to Menlo Place residents.

“Unfortunately, the tree can no longer be preserved and must be removed. The extent of the decay in the root crown, trunk and major limbs is extensive. The extent of the decay has caused the wood strength to be compromised. No arboricultural treatment can be applied or taken to improve the tree’s condition or render the tree less hazardous.”

The neighbors had brought in their own arborist after the accident. And he had given them hope.  “My own arborist had examined it and made various suggestions about ways to keep it standing up safely, though it had been weakened lately,” said Gilbert. “He cited a strategy that had been used somewhere else, maybe Pleasanton, with an old and beloved tree.”

Neighbors are in mourning. “[It’s] an empty presence,” said Gilbert, an acclaimed poet.

The xxx oak tree in happier days. Image: Google Maps

The live oak tree in the middle of the street on Menlo Place in happier days — it was cut down on Thursday last week. Image: Google Maps

Many said they’re also bitter about about what they characterized as the city’s unwillingness to respond to them, when the clock was ticking.

After getting wind from city workers that the tree’s future was shaky, neighbors launched a letter drive to Gallagher, Mayor Tom Bates, and city councilman Laurie Capitelli, imploring them to save the tree; to explore alternatives; to meet and discuss options, Orbuch said.

Many heard nothing until they saw Gallagher’s letter stating the decision was made, said resident Carol LaPlant. “This encounter with city government has certainly been disheartening.”

“I was appalled by the speed and total lack of consultation with which the city bureaucrats destroyed the tree,” Helen Finkelstein said.

Capitelli, who represents the Thousand Oaks neighborhood (City Council District 5), told Berkeleyside Sunday he supported removing the oak. He said he did call one neighbor, explaining his position and offering to meet with a group, but never heard back.

“I’m not an arborist, and the city arborist [Gallagher] is loathe to remove trees, it’s a last resort of his, so I have to rely on him,” Capitelli said. “The tree was in decline and needed to be removed. There’s a liability there.”

Berkeleyside contacted the city about the oak on Friday, Feb. 14, but did not receive information about the tree until being sent a copy of Gallagher’s letter to the neighbors on Feb. 21, a day after the tree was removed.


The stump of the felled oak tree on Thursday Feb. 20. Photo: courtesy Tom and Louise Margolies

In their pleas, neighbors also asked the city to replant the tree, if its demise was certain. They cited another Berkeley tree-in-the-middle-of-the-road, on LeRoy Avenue, which was replaced by the city a number of years ago, LaPlant said.

This was an apparent no-go.  “It will be necessary to excavate the stump and immediate surroundings, fill and compact the space with base rock and to pave the street with asphalt,” Gallagher wrote in his letter to residents.

Indeed, the hole is now patched over. “At this time there are no plans to replace the oak tree,” Gallagher said in a statement to Berkeleyside.

Xmas tree 1

On Sunday Feb. 23 a group of locals gathering at the spot where the oak grew, and placed a plastic Christmas tree there, decorated with haikus to its predecessor. Photo: Jim Gilbert

Capitelli said he has already told some neighbors he’s happy to sit down with them and discuss ways to plant a tree at the intersection, but not in the middle of the street. “I think we’ll end up planting a tree and doing some design work, so we can give it as much prominence as we can,” he said, mentioning such possibilities as a bulb-out from the curb.

One natural event, among the changes, brings neighbors a little solace.

“We were very protective of the tree, even encouraging a junior oak tree to grow next to it, in case the unthinkable ever happened,” La Plant said. “Fortunately that little tree was saved and is now in a pot on the adjacent sidewalk.”


The haikus written for the removed oak tree. Photo: Jim Gilbert

Meantime, on Sunday Feb. 23 a group of local residents gathered at the spot of the felled tree and held a little ceremony of remembrance. They placed a plastic Christmas tree on the street attached to which were haikus written about the old oak.

The group discussed applying for a landscaped traffic calming circle and painted a circle on the pavement showing where the circle could be located. Some neighbors will be taking the next step and obtaining and filling out an application, said Susan Orbuch.

Do you appreciate hearing about the news in your community through Berkeleyside’s work? If so, please consider becoming a supporter of Berkeleyside. Become part of the conversation. Help a local news site thrive.

Print Friendly
Tagged , , ,
Please keep our community civil. Comments should remain on topic and be respectful.
Read our full comments policy »
  • Bill N

    I drove by this intersection yesterday and saw a man on a walker sitting next to a tree in a pot. I thought, odd but well this is Berkeley. Now i know the whole story. Thanks.

  • guest

    Is the stump hollow due to rot? If so I agree with the decision that it had to be cut down for safety reasons. Trees are great but not so much when they topple onto your house or car or kid.

  • Jacob Lynn

    I had no idea this tree existed — fascinating, and it’s terrible that the city felt it couldn’t be replaced.

  • Woolsey

    Why not have a tree in the street surrounded by a small traffic circle. The inconvenience to traffic would be outweighed by its beauty.

  • Cammy

    Remember the Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree?” There are always memories…and a small stump to sit on…

  • Charles_Siegel

    I don’t see why they can’t replace the tree, as they did on LeRoy Ave.
    They could also add some traffic calming, so vehicles slow as they approach the tree and don’t hit it.

  • y_p_w

    There’s a tree in the road (sort of next to the curb) just about a long block away on Thousand Oaks.

  • Chris Rooney

    Boo. :(

  • bgal4

    OMG this is definitely an ONLY in Berkeley story.

    Look I love plants enough that I studied horticulture as a young person but the way Berkeley manages it street trees is far too dictated by sentimentality and activism of some residents. There is an impractical philosophy of save all trees at any cost underlying too many decisions here.

    It takes a huge push to get the city to remove nuisance trees, trees which should never have been planted because their root structure damages infrastructure.

    Oak trees are particularly dangerous to life and property when they are diseased or compromised, if the residents were so intent on saving this tree they should have offered to absorb all future costs and liability for this one tree.

  • ouibjamn

    On it shows that this tree has been in that spot since at least 1946, and it seemed to be a pretty big tree then…also, there’s a tree in Danville that’s probably at least 300 years old, and they built a rather large steel beam structure around the tree to keep it from falling. That wouldn’t have worked here as no one would be able to drive around it. Their only other option would have been to close off all road access and make it a dead-end in all three directions…

  • Guest

    Hey, you’re injecting logic into the debate! Where’s the fun in that? (GRIN!)

  • joekewe

    Berkeley chopped down the 50+ year old sidewalk tree in front of my neighbor’s house because she complained it was blocking her sewer lateral. I pleaded with them not to, but they proceeded without any notice to neighbors (which I believe was required). The neighbor then learned that the sewer lateral was nowhere near the tree, and was blocked by ivy roots.

    Berkeley’s department (Parks and Rec?) which handles trees is horrible. City councilman Capitelli should foot some of the blame if this out-of-control department can’t play by the rules (notify residents of major tree cutting decisions in a timely fashion) and he refuses to censure it.

  • guest

    Who was driving the truck? What were they doing in that neighborhood? Did they have a valid commercial license? Have any attempts been made to find the individual responsible and fine them for destruction of public property?

  • Guest

    It’s your neighborhood.

    To hell with the planning department. If you want a tree there, dig a hole and plant one.

  • guest

    I have to wonder how these people who mourn the loss of the tree and are bitter over its removal would feel if it toppled onto their house, car, child, or pet. The tree was hollow… that thing was ready to wreak havoc on somebody or something. Thank goodness it didn’t get to that point. Enjoy the memories of the quirky tree, but please… the tree had to go.

  • brycenesbittt

    THAT tree had to go: look at the hollow stump. ANOTHER tree could clearly replace it, were the City bold and visionary enough.

  • Bill N

    “Bold and visionary on trees”…nah to mundane and local.

  • Tony Walnuts

    Yes, the only apple tree in history that was also suitable for framing lumber and boat building.

  • guest

    Trees don’t live forever and neither do you.

  • Guest Berkeleyan

    My mom grew up on Menlo Place in the 1940s. Tree already a neighborhood fixture then, she reports, so it is waaaay more than 50 years old. Or, more correctly, was.

  • Charles_Siegel

    Here is an article about the oak tree in the center of LeRoy, which died in 1985 and was replaced by another oak tree. The picture shows that it was already large and mature in 1915 – which was 70 years before it died.

  • Devastated

    Have you no decency…it was a sweet amenity, harmless and charming. we used to go by there just to drive around and around the tree. It was a wonderful tree. Of blessed memory. I am happy that our little one was saved, we have had such hopes for it.

  • Saddened

    But it could have been a natural death. With its friends around it (perhaps under it). Instead it was hacked down by strangers acting on orders. It Was Ever Thus.

  • Dennis

    999 Oaks District

  • PlaneJane

    Mmmmm … driving “around and around” the tree probably helped lead it to its demise. :-(

  • guest

    replant the tree. clear out a few of the houses to make room for the street to accommodate and protect the expected growth of the new tree…

  • realtat

    If you had seen the tree, you would have known that houses were not in danger from it. Cars, maybe. But cars won and trees lost on Menlo Place.

  • Marcia Walden

    I agree bgal4, which is probably why the city didn’t respond back because often residents in Berkeley just want the “fight” rather than listen to anything that makes sense, whether it be about where you park your car or what kind of business you choose to open…so tiresome.

  • Dorrie

    Maybe the lovely old tree had to go after the truck driver damaged it–can’t he be found and made to pay damages?–but the city handled this matter really shabbily. I’ve known and loved that tree for decades. By all means have a traffic circle and another tree! Aesthetics and sentiments aside–new life!– that will slow down traffic. I was nearly hit by a speeding car once, very near that tree.

  • tree lover

    I was recently walking around the rock parks and I happened to stumble upon this tree and was charmed by it. What a wonderful tree. If I lived nearby, I would be sad also. I hope you plant a new one. This is the photo I took:

  • Puzzled

    Well then, by all means do grieve and fight about those things, and leave the rest of us to mourn for our dear old tree.

  • BlameGame


  • msa

    Oh, I suspect they’re the decent ones.

    Look at the stump photograph. That decay? All the heartwood is gone. The tree was dying, it’d become a hollow tube, and it was going to fall soon.

    Trees are great, but they need to be healthy enough to be safe for the public.

  • msa

    Tree was already structurally unsound; look at the heartwood decay in the stump photograph. Also, look at the gaping wounds on the trunk in older photos; it was already badly damaged and being taken over by decay organisms. The truck wasn’t what killed it; disease was.

  • PlaneJane


    Paving and then allowing folks to drive over a tree’s root zone is just not healthy for the poor tree! The asphalt was already suffocating the roots that the oak tree needed to get its nourishment. In addition, the bad repair of the street (at least that is what it looks like from the pics) very likely allowed vehicles to further crush the roots over the years. It’s going to take its toll.

    I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings but I, for one, really winced when I saw all these pictures. This tree definitely did not look like a happy camper at all, even in the picture (Google Maps) showing it in a “happier” day. I actually felt my chest tighten when I was seeing all that asphalt so close to the tree’s base. No plant should have to exist like that. Anyway that’s my 2-1/2 cents.

    Below is a good explanation on how root disturbance and stop trees from thriving, if you are still interested:

    “2. Feeder Roots

    These roots are the small fibrous roots that absorb water and minerals. The more of these roots that are destroyed, the more the tree’s ability to feed itself is impacted. Cutting roots is not the only way these roots are killed. Damage also occurs through COMPACTION OF THE SOIL FROM HEAVY EQUIPMENT REPEATEDLY DRIVING OVER THE ROOT ZONE (emphasis mine) or supplies being stored under the tree. Compaction of the soil reduces the pore space between soil particles, eliminating the oxygen in the soil which causes root death.”

  • theDeer

    Amazed that Berkeley Forestry actually cut it down. Sorry….old peeves with them! So sad that it was that unhealthy…but not a surprise.

  • Marcia Walden

    Seriously? You think you should have all been under a huge oak tree, waiting for it to heave its last breath? Trees are not sentient, not sure about you either, lol!

  • Mbfarrel

    And who’s cars were those?