Historic Tree Falls to Commercial Development

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Bulldozed to the ground, a 110-year-old historic chestnut tree fell defenseless last Tuesday morning as construction began on Santa Cruz’s first Hyatt hotel. Protests began in April to save the historic red horse chestnut and ended the day after the tree was demolished by Hyatt’s construction crew.

The city approved Hyatt’s building plans in 2011, which included rezoning the site from residential to commercial and removing the chestnut tree.

Patricia Star, a protester at the site on Broadway and Ocean streets, is a longtime Santa Cruz resident who grew up on the property where the new Hyatt is under construction. She reminisced about climbing the very tree that was bulldozed.

Star saw the 1-acre site of her old home transform into the Unity Temple of Santa Cruz in 1995, which later closed in 2009 after facing financial difficulties. Star said the land should be used to serve more important purposes for the city.

“Think of how many people need housing,” Star said. “Students need housing — it would be a perfect place for them.”

The city issued a commercial building permit to local hotel developers in 2011. When the plans for the new Hyatt were being drawn up, the developers determined that their building design could not accommodate the chestnut tree on site.

Santa Cruz’s Heritage Tree Ordinance protects trees like the red horse chestnut that are above a certain size, historically significant or horticulturally rare. Heritage Trees are not to be cut down for buildings unless the building plans “cannot accommodate the tree,” according to the ordinance.

Santa Cruz’s Planning and Community Development director Juliana Rebagliati said the red horse chestnut met the standards for exemption from the Heritage Tree Ordinance. The area where the tree once stood is at the front of the property on a heavy slope where Hyatt plans to put its driveway. This slope creates “complicated conditions to design a site,” Rebagliati said.

The building planners considered moving the tree to a new location, a project with an estimated cost of $70,000, Rebagliati said. Though arborists concluded that the tree was “in good health in its location,” the estimated success rate of moving the tree was determined to be 50-70 percent. The city opened up this discussion to allow proposals from community members.

“We did receive ideas [for moving the tree],” Rebagliati said. “We looked at them. We responded. We never received a viable option which included a location and funding.”

Gillian Greensite, a local Santa Cruz resident who has worked to save the city’s “big old trees” for nearly 40 years, said the city doesn’t do enough to protect its historic neighborhood trees. She said saving these trees is important not only because of their value as aesthetic and sentimental treasures, but because they also foster biodiversity.

“As nearly all of the tall, older trees have been cut down, I’ve seen the hawks go, the owls go and the falcons go. The variety of bird species has diminished and been replaced by crows,” Greensite said. “Once these trees are gone, they’re gone forever. We’ve lost so many and we need to protect what’s left.”

The city issued the building permit to the developers of the Hyatt the morning the tree was cut down and the construction has continued since. Rebagliati said the building planning committee exhausted all options before the decision to cut down the tree was made.

“The city takes our obligations to protect and enhance our urban forest very seriously,” Rebagliati said. “This decision was not made lightly. We don’t make decisions like this lightly.”

After reading over Hyatt’s website and learning that the company’s principles for environmental stewardship include “using resources thoughtfully” as well as “building smart,” Greensite said Hyatt didn’t uphold these principles. Representatives from Hyatt were unable to be reached for comment.

“We thought they would have a change of heart,” Greensite said. “Apparently their hearts don’t include a love of trees.”

Though the protesters hoped to save the historic chestnut, they feel their efforts were not in vain.

“Even though the city clearly cares little about saving our big trees, the public has shown they care,” Greensite said. “The overwhelming majority of the public was in favor of us saving the old chestnut. Even the City Council was intrigued that we would go out on a limb to save the tree,” she added with the pun intended.

Greensite said the community support she and the other protesters received is a step in the right direction for environmental preservation. As awareness of the importance of saving our “big old trees” grows, there is a higher likelihood they will be protected in the future.

With tears welling in her eyes, protester Patricia Star waved goodbye to the splintered remains of her old friend, “Goodnight, sweet prince,” she said.