Op-Ed: In Alhambra, the trees and churches have no voice

Tree #209, am established, healthy magnolia on the chopping block. Photo by M. Michelson.

Location

Alhambra , CA United States

Community member M. Michelson writes about the negative impact of removing a wide variety of trees to make way for a new development at the current Sunny View Care Center at 1428 S Marengo Ave.

The City of Alhambra plans to let a developer remove 265 established trees to make room for 126 town homes. Most of the trees on the 11.8-acre former Scripps Kensington retirement community are estimated to be between 80-100 years old. The city council initially voted to have them removed, even though their recently released tree report reveals the trees are healthy. This decision will irrevocably destroy a large piece of Alhambra’s scarce green space and an architecturally significant chapel, about which historic preservation groups had not been consulted.

In its permit application, the developer claimed that Alhambra’s culture, environment and surrounding area would not be negatively affected by this development. But the City’s planning commission determined that its tree review was not adequate, and only approved the project on the condition that a tree survey be conducted by a certified arborist. The planning commission determined that “…a number of mature trees […] appear to be healthy and should be preserved and maintained, where possible” and that the purpose of its tree survey condition would be to “preserve as many mature trees as possible in place.”

The developer submitted a tree survey to the city on May 8. On June 12, the City Council initially approved a zone change for the project, but the tree survey had not been included in meeting documentation. As a result, the public didn’t see the tree survey. It was only made public this July 7.

Nevertheless, the city council unanimously voted to approve documentation for the project, as well as a first reading of a zone change for the area.

City documents show that the developer intends to raze every structure on the property except for the skilled nursing facility. Included in the demolition list is Johnson Hall, which was built in 1923, and is currently still in use for senior leisure activities.

Also to be demolished is the Church of Saints Simon and Jude. Originally built on this site in 1926 by the Episcopalian Church, the church is listed in the City of Alhambra’s own 1984-1985 Historic and Cultural Resource Survey, as well in 2006’s Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles, the go-to architectural reference for Los Angeles architecture. Architect Reginald Davis Johnson designed the chapel. He was the son of the first Episcopal bishop of California and a prominent architect, who also designed All Saints Church in Pasadena and the Santa Barbara Post Office. Several of Johnson’s buildings have landmark status in California.

An independent arborist’s report

It was hard to believe the City would approve cutting down almost 12 acres of precious green space in Alhambra, and without the benefit of a horticultural tree report, it was not possible to determine the age and quality of the trees that would merit this decision. William McKinley, an independently-contracted licensed arborist who who has worked for the City of Glendale, gave me his professional opinion about the condition and age of the trees.

McKinley explained that comprehensive tree surveys typically require 1-2 months to inventory the trees’ health and conditions, take photographs, write narratives for each tree, and assign each tree a number and grade. In contrast, the developer’s tree report took 11 days to be generated.

Like that of the developer’s arborist, McKinley confirmed that the majority of the established trees are healthy and in good to excellent condition. There are more details on some of those trees in this video here, as well as photos and a spreadsheet.

Nevertheless, the developer plans to destroy 229 trees. Of the 36 trees that are considered “saves,” most of them are younger Crape Myrtles that do not generate the same amount of shade on the property as the other more mature trees. Of the 268 trees on the property, only 3 will not be disturbed or removed.

There are mechanisms for both trees and structures to co-exist, but in this development, all except for one building are being removed anyway. In the case of one 70+ year old Shamel Ash from Mexico, for example, McKinley explained that the tree could co-exist with the existing structure by implementing a pier-and beam-construction, but since the buildings will be demolished, the blatant disregard for the preserving the existing mature trees in place is obvious.

Mature, healthy trees create microclimates, but these trees have stopped being watered.

McKinley said that the owner has stopped watering the landscape, which is causing distress to the trees. One enormous live oak is now dead, and the magnolias are going into shock because of a sudden change in their watering cycle, which is leading to their demise. Some of the eucalyptuses are suffering from an infestation of bark beetle.

When the trees are gone, so is their micro-climate and so is the shade they provide. It will take 30 to 40 years before newly planted trees start to look like trees as opposed to sticks, said McKinley, then another 70 to 80 years to recreate the same shade they are now providing.

With the lack of shade, increased air conditioner use will further contribute to global warming. In the summer, a home benefits by a 5.2 per cent reduction in its electricity use by shade, and a single shade tree positioned on the west side of a house can reduce carbon emissions from summertime electricity generation by 31 per cent. By keeping the trees, residents who will eventually live in the town homes will save money.

This real-estate venture should not be business-as-usual in our city. We need to ask why the City Council has voted on a project when the full documentation had not been made available to the public, and without the benefit of a tree report. Why didn’t the City Councilmembers ask what kinds of trees are being removed, how much shade they currently produce, or what condition they are in? Why doesn’t the city have a tree ordinance? Why not send the city’s own arborist to review the site rather than rely on the developer’s arborist? Why is the City making an exception in its current General Plan stipulations to accommodate this project, and why won’t the City wait for the upcoming General Plan that is currently in its final phase? Finally, why didn’t the city planners consult with the Alhambra Preservation Group and the Alhambra Historical Society, the two organizations dedicated to the cultural and architectural heritage of Alhambra, before having approved the demolition of a church that’s almost 100 years old?

The City Council pulled final approval of the project’s zone change from its June 26 agenda to allow the developer to respond to community concerns, but the council needs to do its due diligence as stewards of our city.

M. Michelson is a 9-year resident of Alhambra and is active in the community.

What can you do?
1. Let the City of Alhambra know that you want a tree ordinance (generalplan@cityofalhambra.org and luwan@cityofalhambra.org)

2. Come to the City Council meetings (http://www.cityofalhambra.org/city_calendar/) and speak at public comment, or send an email (luwan@cityofalhambra.org), so there is a record of the community’s voice

3. Get involved with local non-profit organizations, such Alhambra Preservation Group, Grassroots Alhambra, and the Historical Society.

a. http://alhambrapreservation.org

b. http://www.grassrootsalhambra.org

c. http://www.cityofalhambra.org/page/499/alhambra_historical_society/

4. Share this article.

1428 Marengo Development Tree Removal Map by Phoenix Tso on Scribd

5 thoughts on “Op-Ed: In Alhambra, the trees and churches have no voice”

  1. Melissa Michelson

    The developer’s tree survey shows they want to transplant 36 trees (all of them Crape Mrytle, short and young-ish, no shade, just ornamental), save 3 trees, and chop down completely 229. But also according to the the same survey (that had never even been made public before the city council voted), 9 trees are considered in excellent condition, 201 in good condition, 36 as fair, 2 as poor and 3 as very poor, 0 trees are dead. this is how it was in mid-May. who knows now that they’ve stopped watering.

    excellent A healthy, vigorous tree, free of any visible signs of disease/pest infestation
    good B healthy, vigorous tree, minor visible signs of disease/pest infestation
    fair C healthy in overall appearance, but a normal amount of disease and/or pest infestation
    poor D a greater degree of diseas/pest infestation or structural instability
    very poor E extensive signs of dieback

    1. Melissa Michelson

      oh, and the numbers don’t match up because several trees didn’t even HAVE rating numbers associated with them — the arborist seemed to have forgotten to tabulate the rating–yet they are still slated for removal.

  2. Melissa Michelson

    They didn’t do an EIR. Just an MND – Mitigated Negative Declaration.

  3. Does anyone have a link to the environmental impact report? Medical facilities generally contain toxic materials and are a point sources for air pollution. I’d like to see understand the impacts on the two schools bordering the proposed facilities and the planned mitigation.

    1. Sadly, the city did not mandate an EIR for such a large project. Instead they allowed the developer to do a Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND), which is a dumbed down version of an EIR. The city is the entity responsible for allowing the developer to use and MND rather than an EIR. But this is the norm in Alhambra. It needs to change. This is why the city got sued over the Lowe’s project.

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