Few would use the term "mean street" to describe the sunny business district on the Alameda de las Pulgas in West Menlo Park, but for some of the sycamore trees struggling to have a go at life there, it has been downright nasty.
Forty young sycamores were planted in late 2004 along the sidewalks between Avy and Ashton avenues. Some three years later, 26 trees are beginning to shade the sidewalks along both sides of the street. Interspersed among them, always near parking areas, are 14 barren squares of sandy soil, testaments to the bumpers of vehicles that have repeatedly claimed that territory for their own.
The county Public Works Department has tried to protect the most vulnerable trees, first with cast iron cages, then with 3-inch diameter candy-striped steel bollards embedded in the soil, but that has not stopped the carnage. What's to become of those 14 blank squares of ground?
"We remain committed to the goal of having trees along that street, but for the life of us, we cannot figure out the challenges that were there from the beginning," said San Mateo County Supervisor Rich Gordon in an interview. "How are we going to keep those trees alive"?
Mr. Gordon said he toured the area recently with the county Director of Public Works Jim Porter. The situation has conflicts aplenty, Mr. Gordon said, including:
Neighborhood homes and businesses have paid into a fund to maintain the trees, but total revenues of roughly $48,000 have not kept up with expenses of about $66,000.
Bollards could be anchored in concrete rather than dirt, but such sturdy new obstacles near existing parking could leave the county vulnerable to lawsuits.
Raised curbs where the sidewalk meets the parking lot could protect the trees and avoid damage to cars, but spark resistance from businesses over restricted vehicle maneuverability and private property rights.
Narrowing traffic lanes further to give the trees more room could further irritate commuters as well as neighbors already upset over an increase in cut-through traffic.
"We're trying to balance conflicting needs," Mr. Gordon said. "We are looking at ways to ratchet up protection for the trees. Nothing we've tried so far has worked."
Task force disappointed
The plan had been to beautify the area, in part by adding sidewalks and planting trees. A community task force consulted with county Public Works to come up with a design.
"The Public Works Department was less than receptive to the input from the task force in the final design stages of the project," said Leslie Wambach, a spokesperson for the task force. "What was built out there was what was inspired by the Alameda streetscape project. It was completely reworked."
The sticking points, she said, were seemingly small matters such as how wide to make the sidewalks or the street. "I fought really hard on the design details. If you get the details wrong, it can be the difference between success and failure," she said.
Drivers would not have run over trees had they encountered raised curbs or bollards that separated the public and private right of way, she said.
Raised curbs are among the alternatives now under consideration, Mr. Gordon said.
Bill Kirsch, a member of the community and the task force, acknowledged some give-and-take in negotiations with Public Works, but added that the final design, as implemented by the county, missed "the opportunity that we had to make this a really nice, pedestrian-serving commercial zone."
"It's very difficult to get them to take us seriously and do things to help this small community," he added. "They have bigger fish to fry."