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Ficus farewell: After 2-year battle, trees on 24th street to be removed
Woman shops for groceries at Casa Lucas Market near a ficus tree on the sidewalk that has raised the pavement next to it with its growing roots. San Francisco, California, July 5, 2020. Photo: Jennifer Hsu

The Board of Appeals voted in favor of removing 33 ficus trees on 24th St. at a public hearing on July 15, concluding a two-year saga between the Mission District and the Bureau of Urban Forestry (BUF).

Commissioner Rachael Tanner proposed the motion, ensuring that 50 red maple and ginkgo trees would replace the designated ficuses within three months of their initial removal. 

The compromise made in this long-standing issue was largely influenced by Mission Verde, a program presented to the Board by appellant and resident Kindra Scharich.                    

The plan transfers the responsibility of watering the new trees from BUF to the residents without placing any financial burden upon the taxpayers. By doing so, it also frees up enough money within the $100,000 budget to plant an additional 95 trees throughout the neighborhood. 

“We tried to create a program where busy volunteers who care about the streetscape…would be able to spend an hour every other week to water the trees in their direct vicinity,” she said. 

In BUF’s original assessment during the summer of 2018, 77 of 101 ficus trees between Mission Street and Potrero Avenue were considered to be potential liabilities and proposed to be removed. 

Nancy Sarieh, a Public Information Officer for the Department of Public Works, regarded their deteriorating health and invasive nature as a hazard to public safety and infrastructure. 

Close-up of tree root protruding from underneath the sidewalk pavement on 24th Street. San Francisco, California, July 5, 2020. Photo: Jennifer Hsu

“We’ve done multiple assessments on all the ficuses, and there are some that are so high risk that the only solution is to remove them and replace them with another type of tree species,” she said. 

Sarieh cited two recent accidents in which structural failures compromised the welfare of the neighborhood.

On June 17, two trees near 2826 24th St. had branches collapse, crushing a parked car. On Feb. 27, 2019, a severe storm uprooted a whole ficus tree, blocking the entirety of 24th Street between Florida and Bryant streets.

However, after months of public outcry and an evaluation by an independent arborist, Christopher Campbell, the community managed to preserve a majority of the iconic trees.

The ficuses on this 12-block stretch have been a source of great pride for the community for over 40 years. They have been especially cherished during the holiday season, when Christmas lights and papel picado adorn the trunks and canopies.

24th Street in the Mission District is lined with ficus trees that provide much of the street with shade. San Francisco, California, July 5, 2020. Photo: Jennifer Hsu

Erick Arguello, president of Calle 24 Latino Cultural District and a resident of the Mission, stressed the sentimental value the ficuses add to the area.

“A lot of folks are tied emotionally to these trees; it’s part of our identity in the neighborhood,” he said.

Many locals felt that the removal of the cultural symbols also exacerbated the gentrification crisis the Mission District has suffered from in recent years.

“The community is already beautiful, and it’s safe enough for the people,” said  Louie Gutierrez, owner of La Reyna Bakery. “If the city wants to invest in the future of San Francisco, then redo the sidewalks, help the business owners get new drains, new pipes, and new sewer systems.” 

Roberto Hernandez, an original member of the committee to get the ficus trees planted, expressed his disappointment in the lack of attention BUF has invested in the area.

“What I do not appreciate is that my barrio that I was born and raised in has been neglected for decades because Latinos live here. Had they addressed this problem years ago, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Campbell, though, articulated the need for a balance between public safety and cultural appreciation. 

“The risk aspect is very real, and I think that the community needs to accept that. It’s also very valid that this is a special corridor of trees, and every effort should be made to retain as much as is reasonable.”

Although a timeframe for completion remains uncertain, preliminary plans will have workers move block by block heading westward, starting from Potrero Avenue and ending at Mission Street.                       

Residents will also have the opportunity to bid farewell to the selected ficus trees in a socially distant community event and utilize the chopped wood for art or other activities. 

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