Ficus trees and their canopies on 24th Street. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

Residents and business owners along 24th Street are vowing to make their stand at an upcoming city hearing, as they aim to keep dozens of ficus trees from being cut down in what could be the final chance to save them. 

The ficus trees lining 24th Street from Mission to Potrero Ave. have a group of admirers who say they add to the neighborhood’s character and they would hate to see them get cut down.

“I’ve lived here for 30 years. To me, it’s part of the neighborhood’s identity,” Ricardo Peña said. 

Peña is the co-owner of Mixcoatl, a jewelry and art store at 24th Street and South Van Ness Avenue, who has lived in the Mission most of his life. He said he had not received any notice about an upcoming Board of Appeals hearing on Jan. 8 to decide the fate of scores of ficus trees — but he now plans to make his voice heard at the meeting.

He said that the trees do a lot for the neighborhood, such as providing shade, cleaning the air, and making the business corridor feel different compared to other neighborhoods. Removing them would be a massive blow to the neighborhood, he said, and he’s not alone. 

Since 2018, opposition to San Francisco Public Works’ proposed removal of the 45-year-old ficus trees has pushed the innocuous proposal to the final debate, a Jan. 8 appeals hearing where the fate of some 100 or so trees will be discussed. 

The hearing, set to commence at 5 p.m. in room 416 at San Francisco City Hall, will decide whether or not some 70 ficus trees, which city arborists say are a potential public hazard, should be removed. Yet most folks along the 24th Street corridor contacted by Mission Local had no idea the meeting was even taking place. The hearing had been originally scheduled for November 2019.

The fight for 24th Street’s mature trees began in 2018 when the city posted notices saying that it intended to cut down the ficus trees. The city has reassessed the wisdom of planting ficus trees in an urban setting; the branches are prone to falling and the trees can fall victim to infestations. Several 24th Street residents and property owners have complained to the city as the tree’s roots burrow under their property. The trees’ roots have also begun to make the sidewalks buckle as their roots spread out.

“The trees that look the greenest to the public are, unfortunately, often the ones that are the least structurally sound,” city forester Chris Buck told a group of Mission dwellers during an April 2019 walking tour and community meeting. 

At that time, Buck described 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 city had, additionally, secured dedicated funding for regular tree maintenance — something that had been a problem in the past.

Defenders of the ficus trees, like Luis Gutierrez, noted the city hadn’t done a proper job of maintaining them through the years. Gutierrez has lived on 24th Street his entire life and helps run his family’s bakery, La Reyna, between Shotwell and Folsom on 24th. Gutierrez said he seldom sees any crews maintaining or cutting off limbs from the trees. 

“There’s a lot of places where they could just easily repair the street,” Gutierrez said. “The streets are manageable. I don’t know if, just because the sidewalks are buckling, that is reason enough to kill something that is 40 years old.”

Gutierrez led a campaign last May to tie ribbons around many of the ficus trees on 24th Street, but city workers kept taking them down, he said. Eventually, after replacing them about two more times, they left them on. 

Further down the block at Adobe Books, Jon Fellman agreed with arguments made by Gutierrez and Peña — the trees aren’t a nuisance. Fellman is one of the volunteers at Adobe Books, which now operates as a cooperative, and said he had not even heard there was a new hearing planned. He only knew of the city’s original plan when Gutierrez posted flyers all over the neighborhood last year.

But Fellman agreed with the others. 

“Don’t remove the [trees] that are full grown. Don’t kill them, that’s silly,” Fellman said. 

The Jan. 8 appeals hearing could be the final say on the matter.

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23 Comments

  1. Trees are not a hazard, vehicles on the over crowded streets caused by allowing buildings to be turned into condos are.
    I never worry about a tree hitting my son as he crosses a street, but I do worry about all the distracted drivers.
    Public works should focus on traffic safety not the trees that have been here longer than most of the residents

    1. jimmy olson, public works cleans and maintains the streets. SFMTA is the agency tasked with traffic safety, road engineering, etc

    2. Trees are most definitely a hazard if you stumble and fall on a sidewalk that has been broken up by tree roots. Or if a branch breaks off, or the tree falls on you or your parked vehicle, as these ficuses are wont to do. If that’s not enough, the ficus trees are ugly and their dense canopy blots out the sun. Get rid of them already.

  2. SF, the city that hates trees…
    please, no red maple as it is a typical signifier of suburbia.
    gingko needs ages to grow to any significant size.

  3. people are being short-sighted, just because a tree is 40 years old and beautiful doesn’t mean it’s species isn’t dangerous. look at what happened in hayes valley just a year ago – no one wants to see a huge limb failure cause damage or injury on 24th St… as long as the City replaces the trees it removes then i don’t really understand the argument against removal

    https://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/tree-falls-on-unoccupied-car-in-san-franciscos-hayes-valley/163993/

  4. While I think these trees are beautiful, they all need to come down. If the sidewalk buckling isn’t bad enough, in the last decade I’ve seen three cases where these trees have fallen over and crushed parked cars. Sooner or later it’s going to be a person and not a car that gets crushed by one of these things.

  5. Bring down the dangerous trees already. Listen to the experts, listen to the foresters.

    We’ve heard enough from the “Committee to Return La Mission to 1982”, thanks.

    1. In addition to the sidewalk damage and falling hazards, it’s also worth noting that these tree’s root systems have a habit of penetrating sewage lines, leading to backups and expensive plumbing bills for both the City and property owners. I love having a healthy urban forest, but that’s not what we have on 24th Street. There are other species of trees that are much more suitable for sidewalk plantings.

  6. Surprised these neighbors want 24th to look like any other block in the city. Hayes Valley neighbors pushed/keep pushing hard not to lose trees. Tree stubs every 10feet is not a good look.

    1. Mike i am looking at this website: https://sfpublicworks.org/ficustrees

      it says:
      Will ficus trees that are removed be replaced with new tree species?
      Yes. As long as the planting site meets current street tree planting guidelines, doesn’t conflict with utilities and has adequate space to grow safely, a new species tree will be replanted at the site of a removed ficus tree. The new tree will be planted as resources allow.

      this is also a deeper look at the ficus tree issues in hayes valley: https://sfpublicworks.org/sites/default/files/4.29.19%20Tree%20Hearing%20Presentation.pdf

      1. sure, but how many decades will go past until the newly planted trees will reach significant size? 30 years? until then it’s more like shrub.i don’t want wait that long.

        1. >30 years? until then it’s more like shrub.i don’t want wait that long.

          Okay, yeah, lets keep the trees that loose limbs and fall on people and property instead. Yeah sounds like a good idea.

  7. Let the owner of the building decide if they want to keep the ficus tree of not since it’s technically on their property. The law recently changed to have the city take back ownership of the trees, but it’s technically the owners responsibility.

    Those that want to keep the trees can pay an extra fee to maintain sidewalks, streets, sewer lines that are damaged by the trees. in addition, this fund would be used to pay lawsuits of folks struck by tree branches that fall. Or, just stick the owner with the bill if they don’t want to remove the dangerous trees.

    If the people that want the trees take ownership and pay for the consequences, then all will be good.

  8. I’ll trade you keeping the ficus for widening the sidewalks on 24th street. Their gigantic curb cut/basins really impede foot travel down 24th, especially in the wet season when they become water features. I really like street trees, just not *those* street trees. Unfortunately, sidewalk widening has been declared a sign of gentrification, so we’re stuck with them.

    1. Removing the trees and installing sidewalk level grates covering the basin around a more suitable tree species increases the walking area and will expose the hidden turn of the century buildings to public view. A brighter smooth walking surface is included. I’m a plant person and the ficus are the wrong trees for 24th St.

  9. A few items of note: Ficus trees require annual trimming that DPW does not do or even know how to properly do. So in that sense that neglect (along with the property owners when it was their responsibility) is at fault here. To see how beautiful a properly maintained ficus looks, google map 411 Vermont and see the ficus fronting that building along 17th. 24th between Mission and Potrero is a dilapidated mess in terms of sidewalk condition and the badly maintained ficus. It absolutely must be addressed. The fact that a few so-called neighborhood groups oppose this public good is disturbing. The city needs to step in and lead, but once again fails to do so because anything revenue neutral is a low priority at SFGov.

  10. Ficus trees are from Australia and have no place in today’s Mission. They represent an old, weird attempt to gentrify and Anglicanize the Mission and so must be ripped out.

  11. Save the people, not the trees. It is only a matter of time until they injure or kill someone.

    We can and will grow new and beautiful trees. Watching them grow over the years will be a great pleasure and lesson to our children. If instead we keep the trees and they kill someone, that is a lesson in irresponsibility, and we burden our children with the legal settlement of a completely preventable death.

  12. Wow. Who are you people? How about trimming them back. The sidewalks are old and need to be replaced anyway. They’re crap. As far as safety? Give me a brake. You could fall off the curb, walk into a pole, get hit by a scooter. A number of things before a limb fell. Just let it go people it wear a helmet.

  13. I don’t know about the effect of the roots on building foundations but I’ll tell you this. Those trees make that neighborhood special.

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