Merchants and residents of the lower 24th Street corridor are under attack — from above and below. By ficus trees.

Problematic ficus trees are increasingly becoming a headache for area denizens, with roots causing damage to storefronts, raising the sidewalks unevenly and creating tripping hazards, and posing a constant danger of losing heavy limbs on windy days.

“The trees can come down at literally any moment and kill someone,” said Marta Sanchez, the owner of the chip company Casa Sanchez, which used to have a restaurant on 24th Street.

Sanchez, who grew up in the Mission, said two 24th Street properties owned by her 99-year-old aunt, Lupe Sanchez, have been damaged by ficus trees’ hulking roots growing into her buildings.

In one of them, at 2762 24th Street, Sanchez said, the tree’s roots have infiltrated the property and damaged the building’s plumbing, causing the toilets to routinely clog. “Plumbers have been to the [the property] at least once a month,” she said.

This is a costly proposition: Marta Sanchez says her aunt stands to shell out upwards of $50,000 to remove roots that have grown into her backyard. “She’s already spent thousands of dollars, and the city hasn’t responded once,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez added that the company that helps Sanchez’s aunt manage the property wants to cancel its agreement because it does not wish to be held liable if someone trips and injures themselves in front of the property. Sanchez’s family also fears potential litigation. “The last thing we want is for her to be served with a lawsuit,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez said she has complained to the city on three different instances: in August 2016, November 2017, and late last month. Always, she says, the answer is the same: “They won’t be able to look at it until 2020.”  

At Lupe Sanchez’s other property, a single-story commercial building at 2904 24th Street that currently houses the restaurant El Tomate, a ficus tree’s roots have grown so far into the storefront that the tiled flooring resembles a ruptured earthquake fault. “It started way outside and it’s working its way into our kitchen now,” said Maria Palacios, the manager, noting that the problems accelerated a little more than a year ago.

“The whole floor wiggles, so when an old person walks in here, they can trip,” she said, adding that a couple months ago, a older man using a cane did, indeed, nearly fall.

Palacios walked into the entrance to the kitchen, where damage was beginning to appear, noting that the kitchen and cooking equipment would be susceptible to damage by the invading roots. If the roots keep moving into the kitchen, she said “we can’t cook in this establishment.” 

Not a city tree

And this problem is not isolated. Up and down 24th Street, business owners told Mission Local the ficus trees have become a major nuisance. The leaves pile up and accumulate within storefronts. In many cases, the roots have raised the sidewalk in front of stores, creating tripping hazards. And in some cases, like that of El Tomate, the roots are running under the store, causing damage to a store’s flooring.

The problems associated with ficus trees — primarily failing limbs caused by improper pruning — have emerged as a citywide problem in recent years. This led to Public Works director Mohammed Nuru in 2014 signing a directive to make it easier to remove troublesome foliage. The city stopped planting the trees years ago due to their unsuitability for the urban environment.

“If you put it in another location, it’s a great tree,” said Dan Flanagan, executive director of the San Francisco nonprofit group Friends of the Urban Forest, told the Chronicle after a ficus branch crushed a sports utility vehicle in 2014.

All told, there around 624 ficus trees in the Mission District, and 112 of them line 24th Street. “Those trees have been a love-hate relationship for a lot of different people over the years,” said Erick Arguello of the Calle 24 Merchants Association.

Ficus roots have done a number on the tile floors at El Tomate. Photo by Julian Mark.

He remembers the trees being first planted in the early 1980s, when few understood the problems they would cause decades later. Arguello also remembers that the city promoted planting the ficus trees because, at the time, it was believed they required relatively little maintenance.

Since the trees have begun to pose problems in recent years, he’s heard complaints of falling limbs, roots growing into structures, and pigeons nesting in their thick canopies — creating a guano problem.

Over the last few years, he said, community members along the corridor agreed that when ficus trees are removed, they will be replaced by red maples (which have lighter canopies and are easier to maintain), and ginkgos at the corridor intersections.  

But he said some people do actually like trees because they provide shade, keep air clean, and give the corridor character. He estimated all of the ficuses would be replaced in 20 years, as Calle 24 favors gradual change. “Because so many changes are happening in the neighborhood, this pace is much easier for folks to adjust to,” he said.

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San Francisco Department of Public Works spokeswoman Rachel Gordon said the city department is monitoring the 24th Street trees, especially if they pose structural risks. “In 2012, we came to an agreement with the community that ficus trees only would be removed on an as-needed basis and phased out over years,” she wrote in an email. 

Gordon noted that 155 complaints have been made this year regarding trees on the 24th Street corridor, and 19 of them were specifically about tree roots uplifting sidewalks.

“Property owners can choose to repair sidewalk damage caused by trees prior to the City repairing the sidewalk,” she said. “In the meantime, property owners are liable for any damage or injury resulting from sidewalk damage that existed prior to July 1, 2017.”

As for Lupe Sanchez’s properties?

Both trees are scheduled to be pruned next year, Gordon said. But only the tree outside 2904 24th Street are scheduled to be removed in 2020. The one at 2762 is not, she said.

While no sweeping ficus removal is planned for 24th Street, Gordon said, 15 of them are slated for removal on lower 24th.

They’re everywhere

Arturo Tafolla was taking orders at his busy restaurant, Taqueria San Francisco, on Wednesday afternoon. “The problem is the roots coming into our building,” Tafolla said, pointing at his floor. “You can see the floor lifting up.”

He said he worries he’ll have to soon pay for the damage. “Pretty soon it’s going to lift the tile so bad we’re going to have to do something about it,” he said.

Maria Garcia, who owns Mary’s Beauty Salon, where a ficus tree has torn up the sidewalk in front of the store, stood next to the offending plant, pointing to the uneven and torn-up sidewalk. “I don’t know how long it will take to get inside” her business, she said.

Her friend filed a complaint with the city on her behalf about a month ago, she said, but she hasn’t seen any action. “They’ll wait until my businesses goes up and up and up,” Garcia said, laughing.

Garcia was also concerned about people tripping on the gnarled sidewalk in front of her store. She said she sees people trip frequently, including when her 73-year-old mother almost fell in recent months. Pointing to the sidewalk, she said, “Before, it looked even, but now it’s going up, little by little.”

Next door at La Mexicana Bakery, manager Alexis Trinidad said he sees people tripping over the large bump about twice a week. He also said that when he gets to work in the morning, he frequently sees rats living in the crevices created by the raised sidewalk. “Rats right here,” he said, pointing to the crack. “Always.”

John Yoon, the owner of Kazan Sushi on 24th, said the root of the ficuses in front of his store have not quite reached his building, but he has been watching the damaged sidewalk inching closer to the door. “It might affect the building if it keeps coming up,” he said.

Like other business owners stuck with ficus problems along the corridor, Yoon worries the damaged sidewalk creates a safety hazard. “People will trip and they’ll sue me instead of the city,” he said.

They speak for the trees

But removing ficus trees, no matter how dangerous they may be or ill-suited they are to urban settings, can be a point of tension: Some neighbors see the benefits of keeping them and will fight to keep them.

“We’re against removing the trees,” Luis Gutiérrez, the owner of La Reyna Bakery on 24th, told Mission Local in January, when the city notified businesses and residents in the area that it would be removing five trees near the bakery.  

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

Dennis “Tree” Rubenstein, a longtime advocate of preserving trees in the city and resident of the neighborhood, bemoaned gradual loss of trees in the neighborhood. “Now they’re just picking off trees slowly,” he said in January about the five trees in question. “It’s gonna really change the feel of the area.”

Two decades ago, city supervisor Jose Medina attempted to replace 180 ficus trees along lower 24th Street with smaller trees. Public Works also ordered the removal of 73 ficus trees that had been causing problems. But activists gathered more than 700 signatures on a petition and successfully blocked both attempts to remove the trees.

When the city first planted the ficuses decades ago, Sanchez did not realize the problems they would cause some 40 years later. “They were really cute, and now they’re really huge,” Sanchez said. “More than anything, they’re damaging the infrastructure up and down 24th street, and the city hasn’t done anything at all.”