The ficus debate continues
After a decision on the fate of scores of 24th Street ficus trees was put off, community members and city employees sat down for a discussion session moderated by Supervisor Hillary Ronen's office. Photo by Hiya Swanhuyser

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. 

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  1. Hi Everyone,
    My name is Zach Karnazes and I am one of the appellants in the case to save the 24th Street trees (I’m pictured in the blue shirt above). I want to thank Hiya Swanhuyser for taking the time to come out on Wednesday and for writing this compelling, factually-driven piece. Some of the press on this issue has been factually inaccurate, Hiya however, has done her research and has clearly worked to maintain precise reporting amidst a charged issue.

    I’m really glad to see people talking about this issue, as I’ve been fighting first and foremost for transparency and community involvement. DPW / BUF staff have a long history of ignoring the public and avoiding transparency. I’m still waiting for email responses from their staff over numerous questions and requests dating back to September, 2019. Nancy Sarieh is one of the staff that has routinely ignored my disability requests and concerned emails, although in recent weeks (thanks to public interest) some of that appears to be changing.

    I want to encourage everyone to get the facts for themselves. There is a lot of speculation on this issue, so I invite you all to go straight to the source. Below are links to my detailed article with exhaustive footnotes as well as the official appellant briefs that were filed (full of a lot of detail and evidence) and the department’s (DPW) response:

    Please consider joining us at the community meeting Tuesday, January 14, at 5:30 p.m. at the Calle 24 offices on 24th Street.
    Thanks for caring!

    1. I think it would be great if the groups advocating to keep the trees simply went to court and asked for responsibilities of the trees. When the trees fail structurally, they can pay for the clean up and repair, and possibly the medical costs if someone is hurt. When the roots destroy the sidewalk and make it impassible for handicapped persons, they can pay thousands of dollars to have the sidewalk repaired. When those roots extend further, and destroy flooring in an adjacent property, these groups should pay the repair costs. Seems fair, and basically what these groups are asking for.
      Let’s be real, the trees are native to Asia, and there is no “cultural” context for the in the Americas. They are agriculture, not nature. This whole idea of “I protect these trees with my life” is so childish and misplaced, its not even funny.
      It’s not like the city isn’t planning to REPLACE the trees, they are. The national forest service has deemed the trees unsuitable for residential planting.

      The average lifespan of a ficus tree is about 30 years, and these trees are at the end of their lives. The Calle District won’t be enriched by a street lined with old dead ficus trees, I can assure you.

  2. My name is Nancy Sarieh and I am with San Francisco Public Works Urban Forestry. I would like to respond to the comment about the data. We have been sharing data publically concerning the lower 24th Street trees and are happy to provide the data to this forum. In the last 10 years, there have been 42 major ficus tree limb failures along 24th Street, from Mission to Potrero. This number does include the failure of a whole ficus tree that fell across 24th Street last February 2019 during a winter storm. This tree was in front of L’s Caffe and the International Hair Designer storefronts. Luckily, no one was injured by this failure, but multiple cars were crushed under the tree.

  3. Whose culture involves leaving trees in place, even while they destroy necessary infrastructure? Do you wait until it falls and destroys property, or worse, kills someone? Cultural significance my hiney. Get rid of the ones that are dangerous, and plant another tree.

  4. Why not cut down every other focus and plant young plane trees in their place as on La Rambla? You halve the number of ficus trees, and in 20 years when the plane trees are large enough, you replace the other ones.

    I live on 25th and understand why people get attached to trees — there is a whole avian ecosystem in them that brings nature into the city. It is hard to quantify the value of this, but in a city that still has cable cars, surely the supervisors can be persuaded?

  5. I want to hear what these activists have to say when a nanny get’s the wheel of the stroller caught up on that broken sidewalk, because of the root damage, and boom a crusty branch falls on the baby.
    Also, what Bocanegra said about these trees rivaling “Las Ramblas” is nuts! Has anyone ever been to “Las Ramblas”? Sorry to say, these trees don’t compare at all.

  6. The number of people opposing getting rid of these disastrously overgrown, dangerous trees is minuscule. Often times there’s like one (or 2) guy who is the Tecolote ace reporter, whose also the representative of Calle 24, whose also the Carnival representative. He then writes a story about the trees as seen through the perspective of those “groups.” It’s a closed loop. I’m all for the city listening to everybody, but ultimately a few multi-hatted folks shouldn’t overrule common sense.

  7. Resemble La Rambla in Barcelona… lol right… there is not feces in La Rambla or drunks all… I guess you have never been to Barcelona my dear. Get a grip!

  8. We all like trees but the ficus tree is not a good tree overall city tree and should have never been planted on a city sidewalk. The one tree in front of my house destroyed the sewer line backing up water in the 2 first-floor apartment and cost $8,000 to fix. That tree broke up the sidewalk which had to be replaced and cost $2,500 Then one of the branched broke off crushing the parked car below totaling it , This all happed over a 5 year period even when the tree was manicured 2 in that time frame. This really is a safety and liability issue.

  9. Get some facts and speak to the city arborists like I did. The trees need to go. They are causing problems and we’re slayed to be replaced, not eliminated. Cultural asset???? Please.

  10. I don’t particularly trust the city’s assessment of the trees. I think after neglecting them for years, now that the trees are back in city hands they are freaking out about liability and are taking a slash and burn approach to the problem.
    I for example experienced this first hand when the ficus next to me lost all it’s leaves quite suddenly over a two week period. The city immediately posted a Notice to remove. We asked for time and gave it extra water and the tree immediately bounced back. They we itchy to it hack down.
    Two of the trees in front of the paint store which were marked for removal because they had lost leaves were also on the chopping block. Both have bounced back and are green again. Come to find out from long time 24th Street businesses that this is just something Ficuses do from time to time. They go dormant.
    So I don’t have much confidence in their ability to judge these trees and I don’t really trust their motives for removal.
    As far as the incidence of being struck by a limb, at the rate that that actually occurs in this city,(including the incident in North Beach) you’d do better to buy a lottery ticket.