Berkeley disciplines developer after redwood trees chopped down

By Sunday morning, three redwood trees lay in pieces where they once stood tall at 1698 University Ave. Photo: Citizen reporter

A tree came down on University Avenue and it certainly made a sound.

The city of Berkeley has reprimanded the owners of 1698 University Ave., at McGee,. after construction work on the property led to the removal of three redwood trees and four acacias last week. The trees were chopped down beginning Friday evening, after concerns over their stability prompted the city to clear the site, evacuate neighbors and require the removal.

In a notice of violation issued Monday, the city said owner United Commonwealth Business Holdings failed to meet multiple conditions of its project permit, including the preservation of the trees.

“Our immediate focus was on ensuring the safety of workers on the site and neighbors,” said Berkeley spokesman Matthai Chakko in an email. “With that complete, on Monday, we issued a notice of violation.”


According to planning and code enforcement staff, the property owner not only failed to keep the trees intact, as was required by the use permit, but also neglected to make mandated status updates, submit noise and traffic control plans, and install required safety barriers around the construction site.

The city ordered United Commonwealth to stop construction work on the planned five-story mixed-use building, and gave the company 72 hours to correct some of the violations. The company might then need to go through a process to secure an amendment permit.

If the requirements are not met, United Commonwealth could face legal action or financial penalties.

Excavation work around the trees caused concern, as redwoods are known to have shallow roots that spread horizontally. Photo: Citizen reporter

A version of the 36-unit project was first approved more than a decade ago, but the property has changed hands multiple times since, and preliminary work just began at the site in late July, said Erwin Ruiz, who was hired by the developer to work with contractor, A Step Ahead.

On Friday, the Berkeley Fire Department responded to a call about potentially unstable trees at the site. When they got there, responders determined there was indeed a safety threat at the site. Construction was halted and nearby units — three residential and seven commercial — were evacuated. A number of children at a Sticky Art Lab summer camp were taken to Ohlone Park, and two people were put up in hotels that night. The contractors were ordered to remove the trees immediately.

The city determined that the excavation process had created an “imminent hazard,” Chakko said. Several observers Friday noted that it looked like workers had dug dangerously close to the bases of the redwoods, as those trees are known to have shallow roots that spread horizontally.

The owner of United Commonwealth could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but Ruiz said he doesn’t believe the excavation process is what damaged the trees.

“The developer did all the due diligence to preserve trees,” he said. “I don’t want to cut trees, but at the base of the trees there was evidence of structure failure and long-term deterioration. It didn’t happen overnight or within the last year.”

Ruiz said he’s worked on many projects where he’s encountered unhealthy trees.

“I’m sensitive to the redwood. But for how long its been there, it’s served its life. I’ve seen a lot of trees like that.” 

A tree stump at the empty construction site Tuesday morning. Photo: Citizen reporter

It’s not just city staff, but at least one elected official too who’s taking United Commonwealth to task.

City Councilwoman Kate Harrison, whose downtown Berkeley district includes the project site, submitted an “urgency item” to the council Monday asking her colleagues to adopt a resolution supporting the city’s work to mitigate damage caused by the removal.

The requirement to preserve the trees “came as a result of neighbor concerns that the development would be hazardous to the trees that are already facing severe ecological challenges and remove a barrier from the adjoining property to the neighborhood,” the council item says.

“It was extremely clear these trees needed to be protected,” Harrison said Monday. “These beautiful, beautiful trees — I went and saw them being ripped out. I cried in front of the planning director, it was embarrassing.”

The ordeal at 1698 University Ave. is reminiscent of an incident that occurred at a construction site just down the street in 2012. A contractor irreparably damaged the roots of a redwood while excavating around the tree during construction of the Berkeley Public Library’s West Branch. The contract similarly required the preservation of the tree, though it involved the removal of five others, to neighbors’ dismay.