After hearing from about 20 members of the public at its December 10th meeting who were asking — some begging — for an extension, the Santa Monica Landmarks Commission postponed the decision to approve or disapprove the Landmark designation application for the mature ficus trees in downtown Santa Monica until January.
This will allow more time for the landmark designation applicants — Jerry Rubin and Santa Monica Treesavers — to research and thoroughly investigate this historic matter and to respond to the city’s recommendation that the Landmarks Commission deny the 40-year-old ficus trees landmark status.
“We’re requesting a very reasonable postponement,” Rubin said. “Give us the time we need to uncover the facts. There is no need to rush to judgment on an issue of such great importance to so many residents of Santa Monica and beyond.”
Rubin and the Treesavers had wanted a postponement until February, but were relieved to get any extension.
The 150 or so ficus trees along Second and Fourth Streets between Wilshire Boulevard and Colorado Avenue were originally scheduled to be considered for landmark status at the Landmarks Commission meeting November 12th.
But Rubin and the Treesavers activist group asked the commission to table the item until February so they could have adequate time to prepare their report for the case.
The commission didn’t grant that request, but instead delayed it until the December 10th meeting.
Now, once again, the item has been delayed.
In October, Rubin and 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 quite a few people were opposed to the tree removal portion of the streetscape improvement project.
Activists immediately 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.”
On December 10th, Rubin filed a public records request seeking any information and any documents pertaining to the ficus trees.
“We want to see what no one has even ventured to explore researching before,” Rubin said, referring to finding information for the landmark case.
Assistant city manager Gordon Anderson said there were “significant reasons” why the Landmark application needed to be approved or disapproved at the meeting.
“We will, in November, run into significant financial issues with a nonaction tonight,” Anderson told the commission.
Anderson also noted that the city loves trees and wanted to preserve as many as possible.
“Staff really has looked diligently to see how many of these trees we can preserve,” he said.
As it stands, the city recommends that the Landmarks Commission deny the ficus trees city landmark status.
To be designated a city landmark, the group of ficus trees — which are in the Central Business District — must meet at least one of the six criteria set forth in the city’s landmark ordinance.
But they 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.
In 2000, there were 3,184 ficus trees in Santa Monica based on actual field surveys, making ficus trees the second-most-prevalent tree in the city, just behind the Mexican fan palm with 3,887, said Roxanne Tanemori, associate planner for the city’s Planning and Community Development Department.
To date, only five trees have been designated city landmarks in Santa Monica, Tanemori said.
“Although there are examples of ficus trees in good, moderate and poor conditions on Second and Fourth Streets, none of the subject trees are an excellent example of their type,” she said.
The city says 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.”
But Treesavers disagrees. The 20 or so people who spoke at the meeting in support of the trees addressed the need for a delay so that more research can be done to demonstrate that the trees are worthy of landmark status.
“Information is not a luxury,” said Chris Paine, who has been very involved in the tree saving efforts and is the director and writer of Who Killed the Electric Car? “It’s the hallmark of democracy.”
Paine said that a delay was needed “so we can get more data and make a decision that we’re proud of.”
Attorney and activist Susan Hartley stressed “how difficult it is to research this issue.”
Kathy Knight, a member of the Santa Monica Historical Society and the Santa Monica Conservancy who helped start the now defunct Historic Preservation Committee for Friends of Sunset Park, agreed.
“This is not easy to do,” Knight said of conducting the research. “Especially when it’s thrown to you at the end of the year during the holidays. But I think it’s really important, aside from all the environmental reasons to save those trees, to do the full amount of research on this issue, so we can give you the full story.”
At the end of the public hearing, the commissioners seemed convinced by the testimony and gave an extension.
“I would love to give people an opportunity to do more research,” said commission chair Nina Fresco. “If these trees symbolize something specific, that would be important to us.”
Although, initially, commissioner Margaret Bach said she felt prepared to make a decision on the ficus trees landmark status, after hearing testimony from the public, she wasn’t as confident.
“I’m feeling less and less convinced I have the information I need to make an informed decision” on whether the ficus trees should be designated a landmark, she said.
She made a motion to table the item until the next meeting, in January, which commission architectural historian Ruthann Lehrer seconded.
The ficus trees will now be considered for landmark status at the January 14th meeting.