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What Happened to the Trees at Camellia Court?

  • A ficus that was moved from the Camellia Court devleopment on Marengo Avenue to Ramona Convent Secondary School. Photo courtesy of Sister Kathleen Callaway.

  • Trees transplanted to the Ramona Convent Secondary School campus. Photo courtesy of Sister Kathleen Callaway.

  • Trees on the Camellia Court project site in 2017. Photo by Phoenix Tso.

  • Trees on the Camellia Court project site in 2017. Photo by Melissa Michelson.

  • What the Camellia Construction looks like at end of June 2019. Photo by Phoenix Tso.

Location

Alhambra , CA United States

More than thirty trees, including a ficus that is more than 80 years old, have been moved from the Camellia Court development at 1428 S. Marengo Ave and transplanted to the grounds of the nearby Ramona Convent Secondary School.

The 30-plus trees include a number of crepe myrtles, said Sister Kathleen Callaway, president of Ramona Convent, in an email to the Alhambra Source.

These trees were transplanted to make way for a mixed-use development that will include 125 townhomes. The site was formerly a nursing home campus run by Episcopal Communities & Services. A skilled nursing facility called the Sunny View Care Center continues to operate on the property.

But some Alhambra activists are wondering what happened to the large number of trees that were previously at that location. After conducting a site inspection on June 14 due to multiple inquiries about the trees, city staff confirmed that four mature trees remain on the site, said Vanessa Reynoso, Deputy Director of Community Development, in an email to the Alhambra Source.

Three trees are located west of the chapel building, while one tree abuts the north side of the chapel area. The cluster of three trees include two Gold Medallions and one Tipu. The one north of the chapel is a Xylosoma tree.

Between the trees still standing on the project site, and the thirty or more that were transplanted to Ramona Convent, it’s not immediately clear what happened to around 230 trees from the site.

In several recent posts on Facebook from last week, the Marengo Avenue Water Brigade, a local activist group, criticized the City of Alhambra for allowing the apparent destruction of an undetermined number of trees on the site.

Melissa Michelson, the head of the Marengo Avenue Water Brigade, said Lennar Homes, the current developer of the site, violated an agreement she made with the previous owner and developer of the property to save 85 trees from the project site. She also said that Lennar failed to honor a plan to save 59 trees from the project site that was outlined in a tree salvage map that the previous developer, St. Clair Partners, presented to the City Council in 2017.

Michelson characterized this as a binding agreement with the city. Reynoso said that the map did not constitute such an agreement.

“The beautiful green urban forest oasis that was has now been reduced to a desert wasteland, soon to be built up with office buildings and luxury townhouses and subsumed into the surrounding grey concrete jungle that dominates the city of Alhambra,” she wrote, quoting Paul Padilla, another Marengo Avenue Water Brigade member.

Michelson spoke out about the tree issue during Monday’s Planning Commission hearing on a 45-unit office development at 801 E. Main St., criticizing the body for approving the project without requiring the developer to incorporate the landscape as it was into the new project.

Planning Commissioner Barbara Messina, who was serving on the City Council when the project was approved, replied to one of the Marengo Avenue Water Brigade’s Facebook post saying that since there was no tree protection ordinance governing private property trees at the time, the city had no authority to compel the developer to save those trees. She told the Alhambra Source that the city worked with the developer to save a historic church on the project site and to save as many trees as possible.

Reynoso confirmed Messina’s comments that since there was no tree protection ordinance in place at the time, the city could not require the developer to transfer or save a specific number of trees on private property.

She added that the side agreement that Michelson and the Marengo Avenue Water Brigade made was not on file with the city, and that the city has no authority to enforce this agreement, or any plans outlined in the tree salvage map to retain a certain number of trees.

The Marengo Avenue Water Brigade’s interest in the issue dates to 2017. At the time, the original developers, Tag-2 Medical Group and St. Clair Partners inventoried 268 trees, including street trees, and planned on incorporating a three of them in the new development, while transplanting 36 of them.

After public outcry over the possible destruction of around 229 trees, the developer presented the aforementioned tree salvage map at a September 2017 City Council meeting, and promised to incorporate 19 trees into the new development, while transplanting 40 of them.

The Marengo Avenue Water Brigade still believed that the developer could save more trees. After the City Council officially approved the project in September 2017, representatives of Tag-2 and St. Clair met with Michelson. She said that they signed an agreement on Oct. 26, 2017 to save in place 26 trees and transfer 59 trees to locations off the site for a total of 85 saved.

Last year, Tag-2 and St. Clair sold a portion of the development site to Lennar Homes so they could build the townhomes. Lennar then started communicating with Michelson about the trees. Tag-2 still owns the Sunny View Care Center.

Neither representatives for Tag-2 nor St. Clair responded to a request from Alhambra Source for comment.

In a March interview, Michelson said Lennar Homes was reneging on a deal to save these trees in place or to transfer them to nearby properties.

That same month, Lennar Homes Project Manager Dan Hosseinzadeh told the Source that the company intended to honor the agreement, and that the transfer process for the trees to the nearby Ramona Convent Secondary School was already underway. He did not specify the number of trees that would ultimately be saved, nor did he address any other specifics about the agreement.

Neither Hosseinzadeh nor Lennar Homes responded to subsequent requests from the Alhambra Source for comment.

The Alhambra City Council passed an ordinance governing the care and removal of private property trees last summer. According to this ordinance, a permit would be required prior to remove a tree on any private property within the city, except when a tree is located within the rear or side yard of residences in the R1 or R2 zoning districts.

The city has recently acted to replenish its urban canopy receiving a grant of up to $188,000 from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to plant trees on Alhambra Unified School District sites and other locations in Alhambra.

The Alhambra Unified School District received 200 trees as part of this grant. Ten of those trees went to Marguerita Elementary School, which was originally supposed to receive trees from the Camellia Court development as well. However, Ramona Convent Secondary School was better equipped to receive those trees, said Alhambra Unified Spokesperson Toby Gilbert.

In a separate issue, the Alhambra Preservation Group was concerned about a historic chapel on the Camellia Court site that was originally slated for demolition. The Chapel of St. Simon and Jude, built in 1926 by famed architect Reginald Davis Johnson, was fenced off in order to protect it from surrounding construction activity, according to emails between Lennar officials and Alhambra Preservation Group President Oscar Amaro.

The Alhambra Preservation Group did not participate in the deal to save the trees.

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