Battle Underway Over 24th Street’s Troubled Ficuses

San Francisco’s plan to remove more than four dozen trees on 24th Street leaves a lot to be desired, neighborhood residents say.

Beginning with a walking tour on Monday night, Chris Buck, one of San Francisco Public Works’ urban foresters, pointed out some 52 trees that are slated for removal along the 24th Mission corridor and the rationale for each. After neighbors advocated for saving the trees during a meeting last month at Zuckerberg General Hospital, Public Works opted to save some 25 trees and use experimental pruning methods to prolong their lives for another decade.

In a passionate, heated meeting at Alley Cat Books, members of the Mission District and leaders from Calle 24, the Latino Cultural District, gathered on Monday night with representatives from Public Works and District Supervisor Hillary Ronen’s office to discuss Public Works’ plans to remove the ficus trees that line the 24th Street corridor.

“These trees have been part of the Mission’s identity for years,” says Erick Arguello, one of the cofounders and President of Calle 24. “The trees were planted in the ’80s. Because of the time that we’re in, because of gentrification, it’s a very touchy situation and there’s a lot of change happening.”

Public Works originally planned to remove 77 ficus trees. After the outcry, the department revised that number to 51 ficuses (and one other species), subjecting those that were spared to “experimental pruning” in an attempt to keep them alive for another decade. Buck pointed out that the main reason for removal were because of “co-dominant, competing stems,” and narrow points of attachment where major branches enjoin with the trunk, which weakens the tree’s ability to bear its own weight and often results in hazardous downed limbs.

On the tour, residents expressed skepticism. Stopping on 24th and Capp streets, next to the mural honoring Alex Nieto, a victim of SFPD violence and a Mission community member, Buck pointed out one ficus across the street that was slated for removal after its branches had been snapped off, allegedly by a group of younger residents drunkenly celebrating a Warriors win in October.

“We know this lot is gonna be developed for luxury condos. Are you sure the city isn’t just cutting them down to make way for the new tenants?” one resident asked.

“You know, I used to believe in conspiracy theories too,” Buck responded before he was drowned out by the larger group’s protests, aided by one neighbor shouting down from his apartment window.

Residents also expressed disbelief that Public Works wasn’t doing all it could to save the trees. To them, removal is a drastic measure, and they suggested that mechanical supports or more aggressive pruning could help salvage the ficuses. Buck pointed out that steel or metal supports would only increase the ficuses’ dependence on them, and that the city needed them to be able to stand on their own. He also noted that aggressive pruning, also known as “topping,” activates a stress response. The sudden, massive loss of its limbs and leaves causes a tree to sprout weaker leaves and branches, sapping it of energy reserves in its trunk and roots and leading to accelerated decline.

“There’s no war on ficuses,” says Buck, “But it’s a challenge. It’s not a perfect puzzle.”

Another part of the ficus trees’ decline is from years of poor pruning by homeowners. Simply removing or thinning out a ficus tree’s canopy leaves it vulnerable to high winds, decay, and rainy weather, all of which are main culprits of tree failure, Buck said. He stated that the city typically fines homeowners for overpruning, citing a recent case in which the wealthy St. Francis Wood neighborhood received a $2,000 fine for each tree that its residents overpruned — or $60,000 for 30 trees.

Overgrown and failing ficus trees also present a safety hazard for the damage they cause to sidewalks and underground infrastructure. Arguello, Calle 24’s President, noted that the owner of L’s Caffe once found a tree root slowly crawling its way up his toilet.

Buck and the Public Works promises that the removal of the 51 ficus trees will not happen all at once, which may alleviate some residents’ fears that this was a drastic change for a community already under siege from gentrification. Carla Short, Public Works’ Superintendent for Urban Forestry, noted that they will be specifically putting in contractors’ work orders that they need to plant and replace trees before they can move onto the next block, thereby slowing down the removal process.

“We’ll also be putting some dramatic caging around the trees,” says Short, to protect the new trees from vandalism during the crucial first year. Public Works opted to replace the ficuses with ginkgos and red maples, after a group meeting at St. Peter’s Catholic Church five years ago voted on the replacement species.

Although the tension seemed to have died down considerably by the end of the meeting, the Public Works promised that there will be a window of time for residents to appeal the decision and that there will be a hearing on May 8.

“For a lot of folks, this is an emotional thing,” Arguello says. “There are a lot of old photos of them when they were small. A lot of people identify the neighborhood with trees.”

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