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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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