Claremont Avenue DMV and neighbors meet to plan new park after tree removal
on October 17, 2011
Oakland’s Claremont Avenue Department of Motor Vehicles officials caused outrage among neighbors this summer when they unexpectedly ordered the removal of several large trees around Temescal Creek, which runs through the property. Rockridge and Temescal residents and neighborhood organizations loudly denounced the decision. Yesterday, on a Sunday afternoon, agency administrators opened up the building for a public meeting where around 20 residents told the administration that simply replanting young trees was not enough, and pushed for a plan to build a more extensive park.
Outside the building, as the meeting got underway, the Temescal Farmers Market buzzed with activity. People milled about vending booths and a small crowd gathered, sitting on the cement sidewalk in front of a band; the market is open every Sunday year-round in the DMV parking lot. Inside the air-conditioned offices community members vented their frustrations about the destruction of shade trees, which they said were a community asset that defined the experiences of those attending the Sunday markets.
“This is about retaining and restoring a sense of place that we’ve lost.,” said Tom Dolan, a local landscape designer.
Community anger was mostly rooted in what they said was a lack of communication with neighbors about the intended tree removal. Kevin Scoles, the DMV Regional Construction Maintenance Superintendent in charge of the project, sent out notices last August 12, the day before the removal—and mistakenly sent them to the wrong neighborhoods, in South Berkeley. When surprised residents went to investigate the sound of trees being cut the next day, they found the site guarded by several highway patrol officers.
David Groves, who lives across the street on Miles Avenue, spoke with Scoles after the incident. According to Grove, Scoles said he would have preferred to not make any announcement at all because he knew residents would resist the move, and only sent the emails when he was forced to do so by policy.
The next week, staff member Elinor Buchen from Councilmember Jane Brunner’s office contacted the DMV Facilities Operations Chief John Hansen in Sacramento, asking him to participate in a public forum, which he drove to Oakland to attend yesterday, Hansen said. Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner also became involved, sending her staff member Mark Chekal-Bain to moderate the discussion.
Chekal-Bain laid out several ground rules at yesterday’s meeting and said the goal was to come to an agreement about how to develop the greenbelt. Community comment was limited to 15 minutes, though residents continued to express their sense of having been wronged throughout the duration of the meeting.
For some, the trees carried emotional importance. Temescal resident Iris Odonata, who fondly remembers playing near the creek when she was a child, told Hansen, “I used to climb on the trees you cut down.”
Others found the tree removal directly affected their daily lives. Kelly McCoy said she had initially moved into her home because the property was enclosed by greenery; now, she was now left with a view of the grey exterior of the DMV office. Furthermore, mulch from the operation had blown across the street and filled her gutter. She said she had cleared the gutters for winter “literally just the day before.”
Theresa Nelson, Co-founder and Chair of Friends of the Greenbelt (FROG), said the mulch also continues to blow into Temescal Creek, which caused it to flood three times this fall. Chekal-Bain, a local resident, confirmed the flooding.
Arborist Steve Batchelder said he agreed with the decision to remove some of the trees. Batchelder was hired by the DMV to examine a tree that that had dropped several branches, damaging cars. He said he considered the tree dangerous, and requested to survey all the trees in the lot. Some of them were dying or unhealthy, others had shallow roots, and lab tests revealed heavy metals in the topsoil. Batchelder suggested the soil be mulched and the top layer removed so new trees could be planted correctly. “There’s reasons for taking them down,” he said.
Batchelder was not, however, involved in the decision to fell two eucalyptus trees on a city easement that runs along the creek. Still, he said, “It was a logical, practical decision.” The trees, which he roughly estimated to be 50-70 years old, would have required extensive maintenance such as regular pruning, Batchelder said.
Dolan, who lives four blocks from the area, said that was not good enough of a reason to cut them without consulting the community. “I’ve lived in Rockridge for 35 years,” he responded. “The quality of space, the definition of space, far outweighs the cost of pruning.”
The meeting concluded with a discussion about how to move forward with designs for a new and improved greenbelt park. Local architect and landscape designer Penn Phillips donated two illustrated plans for alternative park layouts. The plans included stones or benches for sitting, a bridge over the creek, newly planted trees and “fanciful curving walkways,” he said.
Batchelder said new trees should be planted by no later than the end of November and should be surrounded by 6-foot deer fences to ensure their success. The idea of cages surrounding trees prompted some grumbling among people in the room, who said they would evoke a sense of incarceration. Community members refrained from making a decision about tree placement in the easement, opting to hold off until they could agree on a cohesive design. The next meeting is scheduled at the Claremont Avenue DMV office on November 6 at 1:30 p.m.
Hansen, the facilities chief, said that of the 169 DMV offices he oversees in California, this kind of direct community interest in DMV operations is new and unfamiliar territory. “For us I think it’s a learning process and a shift we need to make,” he said.
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