The saws were buzzing and the branches were falling on 24th Street Wednesday — the final act in a years-long saga over the fate of dozens of ficus trees that line the popular Mission District corridor.
Indeed, despite community pushback against the plan that began in earnest in spring, 2019, 33 ficus trees are being felled up and down the corridor over an unclear timeframe, according to a tree removal contractor on 24th Street who declined to give his name Wednesday afternoon. Sixty other trees will be pruned.
The removed trees will be replaced by ginkgos and maples. A group of tree removers were pruning and removing trees on 24th Street between Bryant and York streets on Wednesday afternoon.
In response to questions about the plan, San Francisco Public Works spokeswoman Rachel Gordon pointed to a fact sheet sent to 24th Street residents that says four trees have been removed so far, and 10 trees have been pruned.
The work will take place Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. — though it’s unclear for how many weeks. Work was done Wednesday between York and Florida streets, and on Monday, work will begin between Florida and Harrison.
The four trees appear to have been removed on 24th Street between Hampshire and Potrero, which took place on Monday, said Teddy Osmundson, the owner of a BrewVino, a new restaurant that serves beer, wine, and pizza at 24th and Potrero streets.
“It’s bittersweet,” Osmundson said. As a business owner, he looked forward to the extra sunshine and visibility. Yet, “as a human, it’s sad to see trees go.”
As has been the case over the last several years, merchants remain divided over the ficus trees. On the one hand, longtime Mission District residents say that the trees, which were planted on 24th Street in the ‘80s, are part of their identity. Those residents are also resistant to killing living organisms that have provided them with shade and tranquility for decades.
On the other, the cit,y as well as some merchants argue the trees are destructive. Their roots grow into the businesses’ foundations, raise the sidewalks outside, and sometimes branches fall onto parked cars. In early 2019, a San Francisco Public Works arborist identified 71 ficus trees that were especially compromised.
But residents fought back and, after multiple hearings, that number was eventually whittled down. Last July, the San Francisco Board of Appeals made it final: 33 trees would get the axe.
“That was upsetting,” said Louie Gutierrez, the owner of La Reyna Bakery at 24th and Folsom streets, a fervent opponent of the tree-felling plan. When he sees the trees, he said, he sees a “movie reel of my growing up in the Mission.”
The trees are so important to him that he’s willing to overlook the ficus tree roots that have grown under his bakery’s floors, and the leaves that clog his plumbing. “This isn’t about the facts,” Gutierrez said. “This about the future of the street.”
“We’ve grown up with these trees,” he added. “They are like prayer holders, and they take care of us.”
Martha Ruiz de la Pena, who owns Five Markets, a small grocery store on 24th Street near York Street, watched as tree removers chopped branches off trees in front of her store. It appeared as though the tree in front of her store would be spared, but Ruiz de la Pena was nonetheless forlorn.
“I hate it,” she said. “I feel really sad about it.”
“I feel they should just prune them and fix the sidewalk,” she continued. “They don’t need to kill them.”
Ruiz de la Pena has been in the neighborhood since the early ‘90s, and has always felt a connection to the trees. “We’re going to be losing the spirit of the trees,” she said. “It’s our life, it’s our spirit.”
Others, meanwhile, were behind the ficus removal. “A lot of them have to go,” said Santos Chabal Lopez, the owner of L’s Caffe, on 24th Street between Florida and Bryant. “I like the idea, because I’ve seen a couple accidents.”
He recently noticed a branch fall on top of a car, and another fall onto the building of a nearby restaurant. “It’s dangerous,” he said. “Imagine if it’s not a car, but a person.”
Marta Sanchez, the owner of Casa Sanchez, the chip company, said she was happy with the outcome of 33 trees being removed. Her family owns several buildings on 24th Street, including a building that houses El Tomate, which was forced to pay $20,000 in repairs because ficus roots had grown to the back of the restaurant.
Ultimately, she said, “they should keep the ones that are safe, and tear down the ones that are dangerous. It’s that simple.”