It was a packed house at City Hall on Wednesday as Mission residents advocated overwhelmingly for the ficus trees along the 24th Street corridor and other parts of the neighborhood to not be removed.
“We have 100 waiting!” A disgruntled attendee exclaimed when the audience was told the hearing officer would be arriving at 6 p.m. and not the established time of 5:30.
The city has outlined a plan to prune some trees and remove others that are considered overgrown and safety hazards.
The meeting kicked off with a presentation by Chris Buck, an arborist from the Bureau of Urban Forestry. Buck cited Proposition E, known as Street Tree SF, the citywide street tree maintenance program managed by San Francisco Public Works.
Since the proposition was passed in 2016, Buck said the city has addressed 26 percent of its tree needs.
He presented the data the Bureau of Urban Forestry has compiled of each individual tree potentially facing the axe. The green giants located on 2700 24th Street are among several considered for removal. According to Public Works, there are currently 133 trees in the corridor and 51 are slated removal. 81 will remain, with every removed tree to be replaced with a less problematic species.
Pending approval, Buck told attendees that the city is committed to a three-month turnaround for removal and replacement. Maple and Gingko Trees were chosen to be suitable replacement trees. Residents scoffed, insisting that the Mission would now resemble affluent cities like Walnut Creek and Palo Alto.
The major issue stems from co-dominant stems that cause the ficus branches to grow on top of each other. Buck said they eventually split apart and can fall onto the streets below. Business owners who operate near the trees say their roots have crept into their shops; passersby have tripped over roots that have cracked the concrete.
Residents, both old and new, say the trees are a part of the cultural fabric of the Mission and should be maintained, not discarded for safer urban foliage. The ficus protectors also cited the important shade and clean air these canopy trees provide. With the trees gone, many are worried about the immense heat that businesses, residents and the homeless will have to contend with.
Public Works hearing officer David Steinberg listened intently to a flood of commenters take to the stand to share their frustrations. A few also outlined alternative solutions such as inputting permeable paving that would minimize sidewalk damage; an engineer and energy specialist even offered to draw up plans for a support system that would keep the trees from falling — free of charge.
Commenters also expressed their disdain regarding the Public Works’ neglect of the trees. Many said they never saw the trees watered and that pruning has occurred sporadically over the years.
“Are you taking notes? I think it’s important that the hearing officer take notes because you’re going to be making those decisions,” John Elsey, co-chair of San Francisco Tree Campaign, remarked.
Longtime Mission resident Linda Lagunas thinks that “our community has been under siege,” and, regarding the removal of these trees, that “it feels like a violation of our community.”
Many feel these ficus trees are not only important for maintaining the city’s cultural identity, but crucial for the mental wellbeing of their kids. Attendees in their early 20s shared stories about growing up around the trees and taking the longer route back home just to walk down 24th and look up at the vast, leafy green canopy. A young girl cried as she talked about the beloved ficus trees.
Hearing officer Steinberg communicated that he would record the public’s concerns and take his findings to Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru who will make the final decision about the tree removal process. The decision can be protested to the Board of Appeals. Public Works said there is no firm timeline for when the decision will be made.