On Monday evening, dozens of opinionated Mission locals attended a combined community meeting and walking tour of 24th Street’s beautiful yet troubled ficus trees — 51 of which have been slated for removal as early as June. According to city officials, the determination comes after years of local complaints about tripping hazards caused by roots breaking through sidewalks, and large branches breaking free on windy days. 

Chris Buck, a forester for San Francisco Public Works, led the tour, which grew heated when residents demanded an explanation for why their beloved trees have to go. The ficuses create an iconic and lush canopy over the neighborhood, and are nearly 50 years old. Buck explained that the species’ trunk design — “co-dominant, competing stems” is the reason so many ficus trees are struggling health-wise, difficult to maintain, and potentially destructive.

Usually, it’s possible to prune an unruly tree by cutting its main trunk stem, Buck explained. But ficus trees are tricky because they have more than one central stem competing for dominance. This means the tree is challenging to maintain, and also prone to splitting, rot, becoming infested by insects — and failing catastrophically.

And these potentially dangerous trees aren’t easy to spot.

“The trees that look the greenest to the public are, unfortunately, often the ones that are the least structurally sound,” Buck said as the group huddled close, with many gazing sadly at a ficus near the McDonald’s on Mission & 24th streets that’s slated for removal. He assured them that the city had heard the community’s distress in response to the potential loss of the trees, and added that the only trees they planned to cut down were the ones that were in the worst condition.

Still, many people who showed up expressed outrage and skepticism over the city’s proposal to remove the trees.

“The city just declared a climate emergency,” said one onlooker. “Has any thought been given to how removing so many of these old, giant trees might impact health?”  

Public Works forester Chris Buck found he had a tough crowd in explaining why 51 ficus trees along 24th Street must be razed. Photo by Annie Berman.

Buck countered that, as a result of public pushback, the city had in fact taken 20 trees off the chopping block. These trees would instead be aggressively pruned, in an experimental attempt to preserve them as long as possible. He added that he couldn’t promise that this technique would work; often, aggressive pruning of ficus trees leads to their demise. But he said he’s hopeful that the 20 trees in question would survive for at least another 10 years.

Buck laid out a plan to replace many of the ficus trees towering over 24th Street with red maples and ginkgoes, two species with less aggressive roots and a lighter canopy, to let more light in. He said the good news was that, very recently, the city had secured dedicated funding for regular tree maintenance — something that had been a problem in the past.

“We’re committed to planting and watering the trees in this corridor,” Buck pledged.

If the city has its way, this ficus adjacent to the McDonald’s at Mission and 24th, won’t be long for this world. Photo by Annie Berman.

After an hour of walking around and another hour or so of sitting and talking at Alley Cat Books on 24th Street, Buck’s thoroughness seemed to impress some initial skeptics — though it’s still clear that a number of residents remain dead-set against removing these trees, regardless of the city’s rationale.

The final fate of the ficus trees will be determined at a public hearing scheduled for Wednesday, June 5  at 5:30 p.m. in room 416 of City Hall. Members of the public have until then to appeal the decision.

The date of the subsequent meeting was rescheduled from May to June following the publication of this article.