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Sharon Heights debate on heritage trees

Apartment renovations stirs concern

If a proposed development in Menlo Park involves trees, the level of public interest goes up a notch. If it involves heritage trees being cut down, it jumps up several notches, as demonstrated at the Nov. 4 meeting of the Planning Commission.

The commission is weighing whether to recommend allowing the owners of a Sharon Heights apartment complex to make improvements to the property that would require removing 145 trees, 62 of which count as heritage trees.

The complex, Sharon Green at 350 Sharon Park Drive, has 459 trees on the nearly 16-acre site. Representatives for the owner, BRE FMCA, said the property would end up with 186 more trees than it has, as the owner would plant mature replacements in addition to building a new recreation center and 2,000-square-foot leasing office and making improvements throughout the complex that include a new dog park, bocce ball court and barbecue courtyard. Construction, to be done in phases, would start in about eight months.

Project representatives told the commission the improvements were necessary, citing as an example the cramped quarters of the current leasing office, which shares space with the clubhouse, fitness center and maintenance department. The new leasing office would be more visible to prospective tenants.

The heart of the matter, however, as the BRE spokesman noted, was the tree removal. Many of the trees slated for cutting were planted in the 1960s, before ordinances were in place regarding minimum spacing and other elements that contribute to tree health.

Residents both spoke at the meeting and emailed city staff to protest cutting down the heritage trees, which some said gave the complex "a park-like setting." Others questioned the lack of access for those with disabilities as well as the level of site maintenance provided by BRE for the existing buildings, where rent for a two-bedroom apartment runs around $4,000 a month.

The apartments predate the Americans with Disabilities Act, project representatives said, and the cost of retrofitting the buildings with features such as elevators would be infeasible.

As for the trees: According to the staff report, arborists contracted by the city evaluated the site and indicated that 50 trees should be removed anyway for poor condition. The rest would have construction or structural impacts, partly as a result of being planted too close to buildings.

Commissioner Henry Riggs noted that, whatever the maintenance history, BRE was about to invest "a significant amount of money" that could lead to improved buildings. "And I hope that the neighborhood is better for it."

In the end, the commission voted 5-0, with Katherine Strehl and John Onken absent, to continue the item to a future meeting. Staff was asked to research the reasons for each heritage tree's removal and whether other tweaks could be made, such as relocating trash pick-up off a public street.

Commissioner Vince Bressler said that his expectation was that the number of heritage tree removals will be greatly reduced when the item returns. Otherwise, he said, there would "probably be a problem." He said that didn't mean the applicant could not pursue the removals, but would have to turn to a different process.

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