Neighbors bristle at plan to remove trees on SF Mission’s 24th Street

The tree outside La Reyna Bakery is slated to be removed.

For Luis Gutiérrez, the owner of La Reyna Bakery on 24th Street near Folsom Street, the decades-old ficus tree in front of his shop shields the rows of baked goods in his window from the sun and his customers from the rain.

But on Jan. 5, the city posted a notice announcing it would remove the ficus and at least five others along Mission’s 24th St.

“We’re against removing the trees,” says Gutiérrez. “They serve more good than bad,” he continued, before listing all the reasons why he wants to keep the mature trees, like providing privacy for people’s homes and giving the street a distinct character.

The city says these trees have been inspected and determined to be a risk to public safety, but neighbors want the trees to stay. Gutiérrez says he will appeal the city notice.

Today, the perennials stand tall, bending away from the buildings and forming one of the thickest canopies of leaves in the Mission. The signature grove provides its residents and pedestrians shade in the summer and shelter in the rain, and that can be hard to find in a city with one of the lowest rates of tree coverage in the country.

But the city says that the approximately 2,700 ficus trees that were planted decades ago have become a problem — their limbs are prone to falling, and sidewalks buckle around their muscular roots.

The trees have damaged cars and caused injuries, according to Rachel Gordon, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Works.

In November 2014, the director of the Department of Public Works issued a general order (Order No: 183151) to streamline the process for removing these trees.

“Now they’re just picking off trees slowly,” says Tree Rubenstein, a longtime advocate of preserving trees in the city and resident of the neighborhood. “It’s gonna really change the feel of the area.”

The Department of Public Works doesn’t know how many ficus trees have been removed since 2014’s order.

Twenty years ago, a former supervisor tried to clear all the ficus trees that line Mission’s 24th St. In 1998, Supervisor Jose Medina pushed for an “economic revitalization project” along 24th Street between Valencia St. and Potrero Avenue that involved clear-cutting 180 ficus trees and replacing them with smaller ones.

Medina envisioned this plan, which he had collected $400,000 of city funds to execute, would make the strip look more like Noe Valley’s end of 24th Street, with sunlight spilling onto the sidewalks and stores extending their hours late into the night.

At the same time, the Department of Public Works had ordered the removal of 73 ficus trees that were causing problems.

But activists rallied together, gathered over 700 signatures on a petition, and successfully blocked Medina’s and the city’s attempt to remove the trees.  

Carolyn Blair, who sat on the city’s Urban Forestry Council for eight years while also running the SF Tree Council in the 1990s, says there is no good reason to remove ficuses.

“Ficus trees can live to be 150 years old,” she said. “The only reason the city wants to cut them down is they have to maintain them. DPW sees it as an expense.”

Cleaning the damage from a ficus tree can cost $395 to $1,776, and it costs the city $1,973 to plant a new tree. Blair says the small, “toothpick trees” don’t compare to 50- or 60-year-old tree.

In the past, Blair has successfully stopped Department of Public Works’ attempts to remove large trees by bringing in an arborist to counter the city’s claims.

Gordon says that the city never wants to remove a tree unless it is absolutely necessary for public safety.

The Department of Public Work’s 2014 general order stipulates that if the problem can be abated by pruning the trees, then removal is unnecessary. It also directs the Department of Public Works to replace the trees that have been removed. The city tries to pick trees that are suited to each microclimate in the city.

Friends of the Urban Forest, a non-profit that helps plant street trees, said it’s  “always disappointed to see large, mature trees removed. Larger trees provide greater ecosystem services,” said Dan Flanagan, the executive director of Friends of the Urban Forest, a non-profit that helps plant street trees.

“However, we recognize that big trees can be dangerous, especially in urban environments, if they die or aren’t properly maintained or become structurally unsound. Ficus trees, also known as Indian Laurel Fig trees, have an unfortunate tendency to be structurally unstable.”

Anyone can appeal the notice of removal within 30 days of posting. For the trees on 24th Street, the final day to appeal is Feb. 3.

You may also like:

13 Comments

  1. Chad Russo

    35 trees are also targeted for removal on Haight Street. Be a good Lorax and appeal!

    When the Boys and Girls Club cut down four ficuses from Page Street (without approval), the symphony of songbirds disappeared.

  2. Adam

    Is there any way to know which trees have been designated to be removed?

  3. Rachel Loo

    neighbors who want it should pay for the tree insurance.

    • Ken

      Focus trees block 98 % of the sun light from the front of these blogs and people’s windows that face the Street. These trees roots raise sidewalks and grow very fast. This tree is one of the worst Street trees. The roots also destroy water and other pipes that emanate from homes. A terrible tree for sidewalks.

  4. phays

    I wish this were part of a larger project to widen the sidewalks on 24th- as it is, the tree basins take up quite a bit of space on these busy blocks and can make it slow going. Wider sidewalks, trees further out from buildings, more open canopies- it would be pretty nice. But I realize that this would require removing sacred parking along at least one side of the street and thus is pretty much impossible politically.

  5. Doug J

    https://sf.streetsblog.org/2015/01/22/gentrification-fears-threaten-to-derail-to-mission-street-improvements/
    “After several attendees insisted that “the community” didn’t want the beautification improvements, Salvadori said tree plantings and sidewalk improvements could be held off. “This plan was an opportunity to do more” than transit and pedestrian safety upgrades, she said. “If the community doesn’t want to do more, we don’t do more.””

  6. I think the title is misleading in this article. The article is about 3 trees that DPW wants remove. Not all trees on 24th.

  7. Gabriel Medina

    The facts of 20 years ago are incorrect. Will be writing the editor.

  8. Judith Berkowitz

    It’s a war on Ficus throughout the city.
    SF DPW has been pruning Ficus incorrectly since… forever. Workers cut limbs off not at the point where the branch grows out of the trunk, but somewhere out along the limb.
    What this does is cause subsequent growth to be weak, friable. One of the results of weak limbs is that branches can fall.

    As a result of DPW’s incorrect pruning many Ficus suffer from “Sooty Canker” disease. This is very easily treated, but it seems that DPW doesn’t have the will to do so.

    IMO there are an awful lot of folks who seem to be content to take standard glib explanations for cutting down Ficus when each tree should be considered separately on its own.
    Look closely at the photos of the trees and sidewalk: is the pavement raised and buckled? Not in this location.

    Poor pruning: place the blame squarely on the DPW. Workers do not understand how to prune trees. For some reason, a practice called “lion-tailing” has become the SF pruning norm. This long-disused method leaves the limbs bare except for a tuft at the end, resembling a lion’s tail.

    Lion-tailing is really bad for the tree for several reasons:
    – It promotes weak branches.
    – It encourages disease.

    ~~~~~~~~
    “Managing Sooty Canker,” an article published by the University of Nevada Reno, covers
    disease with special reference to Ficus.

    It reports that the DPW method of lion-tailing the Ficus trees provides the entry of the disease into the tree:

    “Since sunburned bark is the primary port of
    entry for the sooty canker fungus, do not open
    up a tree’s canopy to expose large limbs to direct
    sunlight, especially during hot, sunny periods.

    “Remove limbs when trees are dormant and even
    then avoid excessive pruning that opens the canopy
    too much to sunlight which causes the
    previously-shaded bark to sunburn.

    “It is good to paint the tops of exposed main limbs
    and the trunk with white, reflective paint to prevent
    sunburn. Use white latex paint – never use oil-base
    paints. The latex paint may be diluted by
    a third to half with water and sprayed on with a
    hand or back-pack sprayer.

    “When removing infected limbs, cut back to at
    least one foot below the site of infection. Always
    cut back to a bud, branch or the trunk to avoid
    further limb dieback or the proliferation of
    branches at the cut.

    “Treat the cut area and pruning tools after each cut.
    Use a solution of one part of household bleach and
    nine parts of water. Then paint the pruning
    wounds with a copper fungicide such as
    Bordeaux mixture to prevent re-infection. Do
    not use pruning compounds – they do not
    protect the tree from the disease.”

    Luckily, other requirements for disease proliferation are not so common in SF, so the disease is extremely slow-moving here:

    “Although infection is thought to occur during
    the winter, germination, growth and
    reproduction of the fungus occur best at high
    temperatures, 85ºF–105ºF.”

    ~~~~~~~~~~
    So in summary, my reason for posting all this is to call out SF DPW for actually causing the problems that it uses as excuses to chop down San Francisco’s street trees.

  9. We have started an on-line petition to protest the removal of these healthy Ficus trees from the 24th Street corridor. Please consider signing —
    https://www.change.org/p/dept-of-public-works-bureau-of-urban-forestry-city-and-county-of-san-francisco-save-the-trees-in-mission-district-s-24th-street-corridor

  10. Andrew C

    Unfortunately, the city has determined these trees are a liability. With all things in life, money matters most, and damage to property and people is unacceptable if it can be managed. As with all living things, trees have a life cycle. Perhaps the SF DPW has performed poor work on these trees in the past, and that is regrettable. But it doesn’t change the fact that the citizens will need to come to terms with their ever-evolving landscape, and that includes replacing trees that are in poor shape or are a liability to property.

    If SF and the citizens in the Mission are serious about the safety and beauty of this place, I recommend a more detailed arborist report for the trees in question. This report could entail short-term interventions for specific trees, so as not to clear-cut all at once; this report could also detail a succession plan, with more appropriate trees replacing the Ficus trees over time, perhaps a 5-10 year window; significant reduction pruning can bring these trees into a situation where liability is significantly reduced (as is canopy) to an acceptable level, and managed thereafter – keep in mind that this is probably the most labor intense ($$$) method and will likely produce unsightly tree structure, and can be hard enough on the trees that it might kill them anyway.

    It’s a sad situation; I don’t like to see trees removed. But the answer is not to resist their removal entirely. I think there is an acceptable middle ground here, as well as a lesson about life and death of trees (a story worth telling). Contact the city arborist and find out what plans and options are available to the Mission District before any work is done.

  11. jean n

    san francisco hates trees. no other relevant city in the US and outside is so devoid of greenery. even los angeles (gasp!) is way, way greener than SF. san franciscans seem to fear any plant taller than 8′ unless it is confined (like in ‘golden gate park’). what is nowadays planted to replace trees like ficus are just shrubs.

    SAD!

  12. Adam Filly

    Older Ficus trees are a danger to the public. On two occasions I have seen large branches snap off and break for no good reason. In one instance the branch completely crushed a bus stop. This isn’t a vast conspiracy to deforest the city. New trees will be planted. Those that are protesting this should be held responsible for the injuries that occur whilst they protest.

Comments are closed.

Full name required to post. For full details, read our Policy