After about a dozen people spoke out against the Second and Fourth Streets Pedestrian and Streetscape Improvements Project — which calls for the removal of 75 trees — at the Santa Monica City Council meeting Tuesday, August 14th, the council approved $8.2 million in construction contracts for the project.

The council awarded a $7.6 million construction contract to the Griffith Company, and also authorized city manager Lamont Ewell to negotiate and execute an agreement with PBS&J Company for construction management services for a total not to exceed $600,000.

Kevin McKeown was the only councilmember opposed to the project.

The pedestrian and streetscape improvements project, which covers the eight blocks between Wilshire Boulevard and Colorado Avenue, calls for, among other things, the removal of 54 ficus trees and 21 palm trees.

Of the 54 ficus trees, 23 were identified as “diseased” and will be converted to compost and the other 31 — along with the 21 palm trees — will be removed and replanted in the city.

In each of their spots, two ginkgo biloba trees — large shade trees with fan-shaped leaves — will be planted.

This will reduce sidewalk maintenance expenditures and liability exposure in this pedestrian-oriented district, city officials say.

But many are opposed to the idea of removing and replanting healthy, mature ficus trees that provide shade to the downtown areas.

And some are concerned that not all of the ficus trees, whose average life span is between 50 to 60 years, will successfully be replanted.

But Walt Warriner, community forester for the city, said that in the last ten years, close to 350 trees have been relocated and there has been a “better than 95 percent success rate.”

In addition to the removing of trees and the installation of 139 ginkgoes, the project includes new pedestrian lighting to illuminate the sidewalk area, the addition of decorative uplighting to the trees, upgrading the electrical service, irrigation and structured soil, enlargement of the tree wells, accessibility improvements, repair of ficus tree-damaged sidewalk and curbs and the installation of curb extensions and new curb cuts, city officials said.

Among those who spoke out about the project was Santa Monica resident Andrew Nestler, who is also a professor at Santa Monica College.

“I implore you to reverse the council’s decision to remove and replace healthy trees on Second and Fourth Streets downtown,” Nestler said “The magnificent, shade-giving trees downtown make up one of the most spectacular and natural resources that we are fortunate to enjoy in this city.

“If the healthy trees are removed or replaced with smaller trees, walking on these streets will be no pleasure at all and it will be a constant reminder of destructive, anti-environmental decision-making.”

Kathy Knight, former president of Friends of Sunset Park and 14-year volunteer for Save the Ballona Wetlands, said, “I come here to ask you, please do not remove any, any, any healthy ficus trees.”

Knight pointed out that the trees help combat pollution and that the shade the ficus trees provide also helps by lowering the needs of air-conditioning.

“My office is on Fourth Street between Santa Monica and Broadway, right in the middle of the war zone that we’re talking about and I am strongly disposed against the destruction or removal of any of these trees,” said architect Dan Jansenson, who pointed out that he understands the removal of diseased trees.

“One of the issues that is important to me is the progressive nature of the city…. For me, spending all this money to remove or relocate these trees is a waste of money and it will create a less favorable local environment.”

It will cost about $600,000 to remove and turn into compost or replant the trees, Warriner said.

Jansenson said that he knows individuals who plan to chain themselves to the trees that are going to be removed. Santa Monica resident and local activist Jerry Rubin is one of them.

“I got a 12-foot new chain and I’ll be chaining myself to the trees,” Rubin said.

Kathleen Rawson, executive director of the Bayside District Corporation, spoke at the meeting in support of the plan, noting that she was looking forward to the improvements, as businesses along Second and Fourth Streets have suffered, she said.

In October 2005, City Council approved the schematic design of the pedestrian and streetscape improvements project, including the removal of some trees, said Mark Cuneo, the city’s principal civil engineer.

The number of ficus trees proposed to be removed was further reduced in late 2006.

After public comment, the council discussed the project.

Councilman Bob Holbrook pointed out the dangers of old and diseased trees and brought up an incident that occurred in 2001, in which a couple, who later sued the city, was struck by a falling eucalyptus tree while driving down Broadway.

Holbrook also noted that many people are injured tripping on cracked sidewalks caused by overgrown trees.

“So, dangerous trees, we’ve got to remove,” Holbrook said.

Trees can become diseased, and potentially dangerous, as a result of decay from poor root and canopy pruning practices, Warriner said.

“I’m all for improving our downtown,” McKeown said. “I’ve actually participated in that process of devising this plan, but I think each and every time it came to removing the trees, I’ve spoken out.”

McKeown moved an amendment to the staff recommendation eliminating the removal of healthy downtown trees, but the motion failed because no one seconded it.

“I’d like the record to show that my no vote [against the project] reflects the belief that the removal of healthy, mature shade trees is an unwise use of public funds and runs counter to our environmental commitment to preserving and augmenting our urban forest,” McKeown said.

Councilman Bobby Shriver said he hoped the public realizes that “none of us either ran for office here or enjoys sitting up here cutting down a lot of trees.

“What we’re trying to do is be responsible about the trees that fall down in the middle of the night and take advice from professional foresters who are full-time employees of the city,” Shriver said, referring to Warriner.

Councilman Ken Genser said that it had been a “long and bumpy road” and that there had been lots of disagreement over the ficus trees, but that had ultimately led to a better decision than was first proposed, which was that all ficus trees would be removed.

“Now there will be approximately two-and-a-half trees planted for every tree that is removed,” Genser said. “I think we are proceeding with what I believe is a good plan.”