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.