After an almost eight-month fight by the Treesavers activist group to save them, 23 ficus trees were removed Friday, May 16th, by the City of Santa Monica as part of its $8.2 million Second and Fourth Street Pedestrian and Streetscape Improvements Project.

The move came less than two days after a California Court of Appeal ruled in favor of the City of Santa Monica and denied a Treesavers appeal, stating that Treesavers had not met the 180-day statute of limitations in filing its claim that the city violated California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) regulations.

At 6 a.m. Friday, May 16th, the city began removing the 23 ficus trees on Second and Fourth Streets between Colorado Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard deemed structurally unstable by the city. They were all gone several hours later.

“We decided to move forward,” said Kate Vernez, assistant to the city manager for community relations. “We do have a public safety responsibility.”

Work was carried out as early as possible “to minimize the impact to the public and businesses,” said city manager Lamont Ewell.

Vernez said that the trees were removed quickly also to “recapture the seven-and-a-half-month delay.”

The project was originally approved in August but has been delayed because of the Treesavers group’s efforts to save the trees.

The delays have increased the project costs by over $100,000, said Ewell. That does not include legal costs.

Vernez said another reason the city proceeded on the project so quickly was that it wanted to preserve the $3 million in federal and regional funds that the city was at risk of losing if the project was delayed.

One-hundred-twenty ficus trees remain in the project area and 120 ginkgo bilobas are to be planted, Vernez said.

“Overall in the project area, when the project is complete, there will be 254 trees in the eight-block area,” Vernez stressed.

The ginkgos are expected to be planted in late June, she said.

But Treesavers is not satisfied.

“It’s devastating to me personally, to all the Treesavers and the community in general,” said local activist and Treesavers leader Jerry Rubin of the removal of the 23 ficus trees. “Some might say, ‘Oh, stop whining, it’s only trees,’ but they were gorgeous trees. And most of those 23 did not need to be cut down. Their lives were ended long before their time.”

Rubin said Treesavers — which had collected over 10,000 petition signatures and the support of quite a few neighborhood organizations — was very surprised at the city’s hasty removal of the ficus trees.

“We still were hoping the city would continue meeting with us to come up with a win-win solution,” Rubin said. “Instead, they came in at 5.30 a.m., 6 a.m. in the morning and very swiftly cut all 23 ficus trees down. It’s very sad.”

But Treesavers’ fight is not over. The city still plans to relocate seven ficus trees to the new Palisades Garden Walk Park at the old RAND site — and Treesavers is adamantly opposed and demanding that the city let the trees be and abandon the relocation plan.

Vernez says the city is not sure when those seven ficus trees will be removed from the project area and moved to Palisades Garden Walk Park.

Originally, 31 were to be removed and relocated, but the city found that only seven were suitable candidates for a successful relocation, Ewell said.

“From the start, I opposed the plan to remove healthy trees with public money,” said Councilman Kevin McKeown, the only council member to vote against the project in August.

“Anyone visiting our downtown today can see that the massive public outcry against cutting down our trees was simply ignored. I’m disappointed in the city’s action, as I know many Santa Monicans are.”