Mission activists, San Francisco Public Works and the Board of Appeals agreed Wednesday night to a two-month continuance of a decision to cut 48 mature ficus trees along 24th Street in the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District. 

“The motion passes unanimously,” announced Board president Rick Swig, banging his gavel at around 7:30 p.m. 

As such, the yearslong debate over the plight of the problematic but well-loved trees lives on to fight for another two months. Folks who love the trees argue the need for their air-cleaning and shade-providing qualities, as well as their value as neighborhood jewels; they were listed as a cultural asset during the establishment of the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District. The city argues a danger of falling limbs and ruptured sidewalks, plus the general ill health of the 40-year-old ficuses, warrants their removal.

During the hearing, appellants Joshua Klipp, Zach Karnazes, members of the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District, and Kindra Scharich each gave statements before the Board, in opposition to Public Works’ plan to remove the trees, while simultaneously agreeing to the continuance. 

Klipp spoke for “Myself and my community of tree advocates across the city,” and said, “The ficuses are tough, like the residents.” 

Karnazes, who uses a motorized chair, seemed less sure about agreeing to the continuance than others, saying “Disabled people have been completely excluded” from the decision-making process. He noted that posters announcing meetings about the trees have been printed in type too small for visually impaired people and at inappropriate heights for people who use wheelchairs. 

Carlos Bocanegra spoke for the Calle 24 group, and described the trees as “Rivaling La Rambla in Barcelona, Spain. They hold up and celebrate our holiday lights.” 

Scharich showed photos of newly harsh sunlight in her second-floor home near a recently removed ficus. “When I say the city is going to cut down all the trees in my neighborhood,” she said, “People say, ‘That can’t be right.’”

Chris Buck of Public Works’ Bureau of Urban Forestry, which lists 51 trees on “Lower 24th Street” on its website’s “Areas Scheduled for Ficus Removal,” also made a statement agreeing to the continuance. “We do not take the removal of these trees lightly,” he said. The large, energetic crowd seemed unconvinced, as several people hissed loudly. 

It’s difficult to tell a good ficus from a bad one. The city has determined the specimen on the right is potentially dangerous and must be removed, but the one on the left is fine. Some locals remain flummoxed. Photo by Annie Berman.

Negotiations between Buck, the appellants, and the public resulted in an unusual organized discussion immediately following the hearing. All parties agreed to work in partnership with Supervisor Hillary Ronen’s office. Ronen legislative aide Paul Monge spoke at the hearing to announce the supervisor’s support for stakeholders to work together to create an Environmental Impact Report and afterward, Monge volunteered one of the Board of Supervisors’ conference rooms for the ad-hoc meeting. 

After the gavel, about 50 people including neighborhood residents, gardeners, organizers, and Buck walked down two floors, passing City Hall’s famous marble staircase (where Mayor London Breed was sworn in earlier that day). In the Margaret Maguire conference room near Ronen’s office, the ensuing discussion was heartfelt and well-researched. Monge facilitated speakers and took notes on paper taped to the wall; his office even provided snacks — the evening having begun some four hours earlier. 

“In my culture and my tradition, I put my life down for these trees,” said Sandra Sandoval, a lifelong Mission resident. She also said that she had seen alternative solutions to axing aging trees in Europe, such as scaffolding. “Working with the trees, instead of cutting them,” Sandoval encouraged the group. Other speakers mentioned similar projects they’d noticed in Hawai’i. 

One woman wondered if the Environmental Impact Report would cover lowered property values resulting from tree removal, and said such devaluation would disproportionately affect small Latino family-owned businesses.

Consuelo Garcia got a laugh, saying, “I still don’t see the reason to remove any tree. What if I look at you and say, ‘You don’t look so good. I’ll remove you?’” On a more serious note, she emphasized the climate’s state of emergency, and wondered why the value of any tree was up for discussion. 

Christopher-Michael Rojas-Moreno, a longtime Mission District resident, contributed perhaps the evening’s most lyrical comment. “The trees provide a space of memory, place, and identity,” he said. “The trees are us.” 

A resident of Hayes Valley, Susan Cieutat, looked across the conference table at Buck and said, “We need to challenge the idea that trees are dangerous.” If they are dangerous, as Public Works has repeatedly said they are, Cieutat said, “We need data.” 

The upshot was setting a date for another meeting, at which solutions will be discussed. Buck agreed to attend, and the meeting is set for Tuesday, January 14, at 5:30 p.m. at the Calle 24 offices on 24th Street.