Fourteen of 18 ficus trees in Hollywood that became the focus of a legal battle and demonstrations after the city slated them for removal will be spared under a plan unanimously approved Tuesday by the Los Angeles City Council.
The trees in the 1200 block of Cherokee Avenue were scheduled to be cut down by the Bureau of Street Services, which said the removals were needed in order to fix the sidewalks.
Two groups, United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles and Eastside Nature Alliance, took legal action last year to stop the removals, and a court injunction put the final decision in the hands of the City Council.
Councilman David Ryu, who represents the neighborhood where the trees are located, said he worked with the Bureau of Street services on a solution, and a new report issued in December by the bureau concludes that 14 can be spared.
The ficus trees are located at the site of a slip-and-fall accident that triggered a lawsuit against the city that resulted in a $3 million settlement last April with Holli S. Breakfield, who hit her head on the sidewalk on New Year’s Eve 2014 while being carried on the back of a man who “tripped on a pattern of defects,” according to her court papers.
“There’s no question that we need to repair our broken sidewalks. It’s a matter of accessibility and public safety,” Ryu said before the vote. “However, on initial look, the city translated this to mean that the removal of 18 mature trees along Cherokee Avenue was also required — trees that provide shade, reduce pollution, and are crucial to our health and climate. Decades of growth and maturity ripped out without much of an afterthought. Fixing our sidewalks and protecting our trees should not, and cannot, be a zero sum game.”
The two groups fighting the tree removals were supported by the Coalition to Preserve LA, which is funded by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a frequent critic of the city’s real estate development actions.
Jill Stewart, executive director of the coalition, and the groups used the Cherokee trees as an example to criticize the city’s entire urban forestry management, and in August sought a temporary restraining order that would have stopped the city from removing trees as part of its $1.3 billion sidewalk repair program.
The groups said the city’s plan to cut down the Cherokee Avenue trees and six camphor trees in the 600 block of West 48th Street in South Los Angeles was in need of a full environmental impact review as part of the California Environmental Quality Act.
The restraining order would have applied citywide, but Superior Court Judge Richard Fruin struck down the request.
The city’s 30-year sidewalk repair program, with an aim of spending at least $31 million annually to repair or replace damaged sidewalks, was enacted as the result of a 2015 settlement of a class-action lawsuit brought by a group of disabled people who argued that the city was in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act by failing over decades to properly maintain its sidewalks.
Kevin James, president of the Board of Public Works, defended the city’s tree removal policies to City News Service last year. He said the sidewalks on Cherokee are among the worst in the city, and the injuries Breakfield suffered played a role in his original vote to have the trees removed.
James said he personally went out to the site to try and help devise ways to save the trees, and that it is common for the board to try and save trees after a request from the community.
“We do this all the time, and we don’t get sued on every tree removal. I think we’ve been sued on two of them in the five-and-a-half years I’ve been here, and that was one of them,” James said. “In a lot of them, the community comes in and they ask us to go out and dig deeper, look harder. And that’s what sparks the additional work that we do. It’s not a lawsuit, it’s an interested property owner, it’s a neighbor, it’s an interested community organization.”
The Bureau of Street Services report outlines a plan to utilize a combination of root pruning, tree trimming and reduction in the sidewalk width as allowable by the ADA, which will save 14 of the trees, although the report also said the four trees still marked for removal have caused significant damage to the sidewalk and cannot be pruned without compromising safety.
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