Following a months-long appeal process led by a group of residents seeking to preserve seven redwood trees at the corner of El Camino Real at Ravenswood Avenue, the Menlo Park City Council voted 4-0, with Councilwoman Catherine Carlton absent, to deny the residents' appeal and permit the property owner, Matt Matteson, to cut down the trees.
In exchange for the tree removal permit, though, Matteson agreed to plant 76 new trees throughout the city, the same number of trees his family planted on the site when the office building was constructed.
He agreed to plant 14 to replace the 7 that are slated to be felled, and to work with Canopy, a local nonprofit that plants trees, to plant a dozen new trees at the Burgess Park campus and 50 new trees in the Belle Haven neighborhood, at an estimated cost of $1,000 per tree.
Matteson also agreed to work with the community to find a meaningful purpose for the wood from the felled redwoods, whether as art or low-income housing.
The proposal to remove the trees was first approved last October by the Menlo Park Planning Commission.
According to Matteson, the trees are preventing critical repairs to the parking structure and the office building's foundation at 1000 El Camino Real. At least three of the steel tendons holding the parking structure up have failed, he said, and others may have failed. The structure is now out of compliance with safety codes, and work to fix the structure is both "urgent and nondiscretionary," he said.
After notices went up on the trees last fall, community members raised concerns about the planned removal and the matter was appealed to the Environmental Quality Commission.
The Commission denied the appeal on a 4-3 vote, finding that there were no "feasible" or "reasonable" alternatives to preserve the trees.
City staff explored eight possibilities to preserve the trees, but found that none would resolve the water damage to the structure, ensure the trees' stability and comply with building code laws, Menlo Park Sustainability Manager Rebecca Lucky said.
A life safety problem
"I love these trees," Matteson told the council. "I'm disappointed to have to remove any."
In the 1980s, the city worked with the Matteson family to permit the development of surplus city land to install the office building that's there now, he said. The city provided a ground lease on the condition that the property have underground parking, extensive landscaping and a high-quality building.
At the time, his family planted 76 trees on the site. Redwoods were a fast-growing way to provide beautiful visual screening from the office building. Now, Matteson told The Almanac, the trees take an enormous amount of water to support, and their roots are invasive.
Attendees made arguments both for and against the removal of the trees in public comment.
Jen Mazzon, who helped organize the supporters of the trees, criticized the city's lack of innovation in attempting to save the trees, and urged the council to focus on maximizing the value to the community of city land rather than try to resolve the problem of the property owner.
Others who favored allowing the trees to be cut down raised arguments about precedent.
Construction manager and resident Joe Nootbaar raised questions about the precedent that would be set should the trees be permitted to remain in place. "Are we going to have people stop planting trees near (buildings) because they're afraid of the ramifications?" he asked.
Mike Mohrman, a resident who works in the construction industry, commented, "You don't want citizens to tell other citizens what trees they can cut down and what they can't based on their own structural engineering."
"While it is important to listen to the voices of the community, there has been significant review," said attendee Jane Williams. "We would ask that you deny the appeal and approve the removal of the trees."
A potential solution
At the appeal hearing, those who favored preserving the trees brought in Bijan Aalami from Palo Alto, a structural engineer who specializes in post-tensioning work with concrete structures. He spoke about the work he's done using new methods, and told the council it could be possible to do the work for under $1 million. But the idea needed further vetting, and even if it were to work, it would likely delay the project so that the repairs can't be done this dry season. The proposal could also require the office building to be vacated.
Councilman Drew Combs commented that the appellants appeared to be "asking for incredibly novel solutions that seem not tested."
"I do appreciate this process," he said. "I think it speaks well of our city and the importance of our trees in general."
"It's sort of absurd we have to be choosing between parking and 35-year-old iconic redwood trees," Councilwoman Betsy Nash said. "Unfortunately I think that's where we are."
She made the request that the wood from the trees be repurposed for something meaningful. "It would have been great had we more time to come to a better solution," she added.