(October 9, 2009) Hear the audio version

While I was minding my own business and working at home last month, the City of Palo Alto Public Works Department chainsawed 63 trees on three blocks of California Avenue, the city’s “other downtown.” That’s right: people working for a city named after a tree purposely mass slaughtered dozens of shade-providing holly oak trees on a street of shops, restaurants and a hotel. Within two days a vibrant shopping district of mostly independent, small businesses looked like a strip mall. Or a moonscape. Drivers turned onto the street and thought they were going crazy, because it looked so different.

I didn’t see the results of what I now call the California Avenue chainsaw massacre until the following Sunday, when I walked across El Camino to the farmers market – shaking my head, catching my breath. Farmers reached for hats they hadn’t brought as they sold their produce in the hot September sun.

Apparently some merchants and building owners complained about the oaks, and someone thought they should be removed en masse. And quickly. The city has a “beautification plan,” and replacing the oaks with red maples – so California can look like Vermont? – was in the plan.

Yet the Public Works Department ignored a 14-day waiting period before chainsawing, and most merchants and Palo Alto and Stanford residents are livid. The owner of the cobbler shop says the tree removal led to the most depressing week of her life. Business is down 10 percent at the used bookstore since the trees came down; soon, the 21-year-old shop may close. Everyone, especially those who enjoyed dining al fresco, misses the shade. The City Manager apologized for the poor communication. But not for the massacre? The ugliness and un-greenness of it all?

Thankfully, cooler heads are making their voices heard. A group of citizens invited an independent arborist to recommend what sort of trees the street should have. City officials then scheduled a public meeting to discuss replanting. Perhaps there should be a variety of trees. Plant some now, some later. And never let those chainsaws have at it again.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

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