After about 20 people spoke in a packed room of tree-lovers at City Hall encouraging the Santa Monica Landmarks Commission to designate 140 mature downtown ficus trees as landmarks, the commission denied landmark status to the trees at its meeting Monday, January 14th.
Commission member Ruthan Lehrer, the only architectural historian on the commission, cast the sole vote against the recommendation.
“We’re disappointed, but we still have to carry on what we’re doing,” said local activist and Santa Monica Treesaver Jerry Rubin, the landmark designation applicant. “We’re going to continue our efforts. We’re not going to give up.”
Rubin has ten days to decide if he will appeal the Landmark Commission’s decision and he says it’s “quite likely” that he will do so.
In October, Rubin and Santa Monica Treesavers filed two landmark designation applications for the ficus trees between Colorado Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard — one for those on Second Street and one for those on Fourth Street.
This came after the Santa Monica City Council approved an $8.2-million Second and Fourth Streets Pedestrian and Streetscape Improvements project in August, which, among other things, called for the removal of 54 ficus trees and 21 palm trees. Councilman Kevin McKeown cast the sole vote against the project.
Of the 54 ficus trees, 23 were identified as “diseased” — although they are now being called “structurally unstable” by the city — and were to be converted to compost. The other 31, along with the 21 palm trees, were to be removed and replanted elsewhere in the city.
In each of their spots, two ginkgo biloba trees were to be planted.
But many people were opposed to the tree removal portion of the streetscape improvement project.
Activists banded together and formed Santa Monica Treesavers — to rally against the city’s plan to remove and relocate or convert to compost the 54 mature ficus trees.
Rubin said, “We’re going to do everything possible legally and politically to save these trees.”
To be designated a city landmark, the group of ficus trees — which are in the Central Business District — needed to meet at least one of the six criteria set forth in the city’s landmark ordinance.
In their presentation to the Landmarks Commission January 14th, Treesavers argued that the groups of ficus trees on Second and Fourth Streets met three of the six criteria.
Treesavers say the ficus trees meet Criterion 3 because they are identified with a historic personage and with important events in local history.
The trees are historically identified with Jacqueline Girion, a community volunteer and early environmental activist who was heavily involved with the treeplanting efforts, Treesavers say.
Two of Girion’s five sons attended the commission meeting and spoke for saving the trees.
“These are historic trees,” said Woody Girion. “These trees continue to be the heart and soul of this community.”
Additionally, the Treesavers said the ficus trees meet Criterion 1 because they exemplify, symbolize and manifest elements of the cultural, social, economic, political or architectural history of the city.
Treesavers say they meet Criterion 6 because they have a unique location, a singular physical characteristic, and are an established and familiar visual feature of the neighborhood, the community and the city.
But the city, in its report, recommended that the Landmarks Commission deny the ficus trees city landmark status.
The groups of ficus trees don’t meet any of the landmark designation criteria, the city says.
Both city forester Walt Warriner and a staff arborist at PCR Services Corporation, the city’s historic resources consultant, believe that “these trees are not an excellent representation of their species and do not possess unique or noteworthy characteristics on an individual basis or as groups with their existing linear canopies.”
The ficus trees on Second and Fourth Streets are “typical examples of the numerous ficus street trees planted at the height of their popularity in the city’s tree planting program,” the city says.
Also, the city notes that the ficus trees don’t “possess characteristics of noteworthy or aesthetic interest or value sufficient to warrant city landmark designation based on factors such as historic association, age, size, condition, or rarity that have been consistently applied in previous landmark tree evaluations.”
After members of the public spoke, the Landmarks Commission discussed the trees.
Commissioner Margaret Bach said she appreciated the passion of the tree-lovers in the room, but she added, “I am not comfortable in thinking of these particular trees as landmarkable.”
Lehrer said she thought the commission might be able to support the trees as landmarks.
“I find myself being quite persuaded by some of the testimony I’ve heard,” she said.
But commissioner John Berley disagreed.
“I just don’t see how they, as a group, could be considered a landmark,” Berley said of the trees. “I just don’t feel we have the criteria for landmark [status].”
Commissioner Roger Genser said that Girion seemed “somewhat compelling” as a historical figure, but that he just wasn’t able to make that leap to landmarking the trees.
“I don’t think they come to a level of landmarked trees, not that they’re not important trees, not that they don’t define the character of the downtown area,” Genser said.
Chair Nina Fresco said she was very moved by the speakers, but noted, “I don’t see my way to designating the trees landmarks.”
Berley made a motion to deny the applications landmark status and Genser seconded the motion.
Lehrer was the only one to vote against the recommendation.
The Treesavers were thoroughly disappointed, but they say the fight is not over.
“We just started [the fight] four months ago and I think we’ve made good strides,” Rubin says. “It’s everyone, a diverse group of people, working together and that’s what makes this wonderful — real tree-savers. And of course we’re not giving up.”