If Trees on Van Ness Matter So Much, Good Thing They’ll Double With BRT

Image: SFMTA

After the construction of bus rapid transit, Van Ness Avenue will have more than twice the number of trees it does today. But the SF Chronicle and local broadcast news reporters didn’t let that get in the way of blowing a story about tree removal notices completely out of proportion.

Reports from the Chronicle, which kicked off the media fracas yesterday, as well as ABC, KTVU, and NBC featured misleading headlines like, “San Francisco officials to cut down nearly 200 trees.” The whole manufactured controversy, which the Chron doubled down on today, depends on glossing over the fact that the BRT project involves planting about 400 new trees to replace the 193 trees set for removal.

Media outlets would have their audiences believe “dozens” protested the dastardly replacement of trees as part of the BRT project, but none provided an actual count of the speakers at the Department of Public Works hearing on permits to remove the trees. So here it is: There were 26 speakers; 16 against, five in support, and five who were neutral but expressed concerns about the importance of urban trees. Those numbers are from Bob Masys, a senior engineer for the SF County Transportation Authority (not the SFMTA, as the Chronicle reported).

The last-minute complaints don’t seem to pose a serious threat to the construction of Van Ness BRT. DPW’s approval of tree removal permits is a late and minor step for the project, which has already been severely delayed. After launch was originally scheduled for 2012, it’s now on track for 2019.

None of the sensationalist coverage bothered to consult transit advocates for the story.

Image: ABC 7

Andy Bosselman of the SF Transit Riders Union “urges the city to move forward with Van Ness BRT and do everything possible to accelerate its completion,” noting that it’s expected to speed up Muni lines on the street by 32 percent, on average.

“Twice as many trees will be planted as removed and we’re thrilled about that,” he said in a statement. “The beautification of Van Ness is important to all San Franciscans. We’re excited to see the dramatic improvements for pedestrians, too.”

While the Chronicle’s initial report said neighbors felt “blindsided” about the removal of mature trees, city staff say they’ve done extensive outreach during the years of planning for Van Ness BRT, which has consistently included discussion about trees. The SFMTA said it mailed flyers and brochures to 22,000 addresses late last year, and DPW held a community meeting dedicated to tree selection in January.

Livable City Director Tom Radulovich said city agencies’ communication with neighbors on street projects can at times be “absymal.” But yesterday’s hearing had many familiar faces from community meetings over the years, said Masys. Many opponents said they simply hadn’t realized that removal of existing trees was a part of the Van Ness redesign.

A project of this size “has a number of impacts,” said Masys, “and it can be hard to” make sure the public understands “every single one of them.”

“Trees were a topic of discussion throughout the environmental” report, which was vetted for public comments several years ago, he said.

The BRT configuration, approved by the Board of Supervisors in 2012, allowed for wider medians and larger trees than most of the alternative configurations, Masys pointed out.

According to the city’s environmental impact report, most of the trees to be removed on Van Ness were found to be unhealthy. Flyers distributed by opponents claimed they’re not, but Masys said the trees they referred to were only younger trees that have been planted within the last ten years.

“This project has a lot of trees involved — probably more so than most,” said Masys. “I think we did a decent job of keeping the tree topic on the table.”

  • bobster1985

    2019? It’s going to take four more years before this relatively simple project gets completed?

  • runn3r85

    I bet you we don’t see it until 2020 at the earliest. SF government at it’s finest.

  • NoeValleyJim

    Wait till Save Van Ness Street files its lawsuit.

  • lunartree

    There are DOZENS of them to fight. DOZENS!!!

  • Jake Wegmann

    When push comes to shove, the average SF voter chooses an inclusive and intensive process over public works delivered quickly and cheaply. There is a direct tradeoff between the two.

  • SFnative74

    If you like the project, you want it fast. If you dislike or want to change the project, you want a long process.

  • my_username_already_exists

    To be fair, the city has been awful about summarizing what decisions are actually being made. The project site is way out of date, and the document on tree study is from 2013. Several options are listed, but it’s far from clear which is the actual plan. Anyone who wants concrete detail will have a tough time. Also, community outreach meetings are often midweek when stakeholders are busy working.

  • p_chazz

    The tree nazis will bring this project to a grinding halt, as they have every project that involves the removal of trees, even if more trees are planned. For them, a tree in the ground is worth two in a rendering.

  • helloandyhihi

    Maybe the city should a) mark trees for removal much earlier in the process since that’s all people seem to pay attention to or 2) not mark them at all. If you’re not paying attention to all of the other notices why should you have a say so late in the process?

  • lunartree

    The problem isn’t really government, but the fact our government needs to be more resilient to idiots and saboteurs. Democracy is good, but you must also find a way to deal with people who simply shouldn’t be listened to. Every time a good project get laid out someone sues for some nonsense reason. The worst are the people who abuse the environmental review laws to intentionally sabotage projects.

  • runn3r85

    I totally agree with you. My comment was more about the fact that this project was supposed to be done already, but as usual (like the Geary BRT), things don’t seem to get done on time.

  • theGreaterMarin

    If only SF tree activists could channel their anger towards growing San Francisco’s urban canopy, rather than allowing it to deteriorate due to neglect.

  • Gezellig

  • Gezellig

    One potential help in the future will be the lack of need for SF to hew to LOS-style planning:

    http://www.citylab.com/commute/2014/07/transit-projects-are-about-to-get-much-much-easier-in-california/374049/

    The Van Ness BRT project’s absurd duration is the focus of this article specifically as poster child to what happens when CEQA is perversely used to torpedo more sustainable/equitable projects.

  • ☼ I support the Van Ness BRT, but it’s not really accurate to call this a doubling of trees. For one thing, our average street tree mortality rate is 50%. For another, saplings for mature trees is no even trade. There will be a loss of canopy, and of traffic-calming, for decades.

    NYC has an excellent tree-replacement formula: You put a tape measure around the tree at 4.5ft high, which is called “diameter at breast height” (dbh). Any trees lost in a project must be replaced by as many trees as it takes for the total dbh to be maintained.

    We are going to see similar complaints about the loss of mature trees when the Masonic Avenue improvements get underway.

  • runn3r85

    Thanks for this article!! It’s a great read. Need to get the car centric laws reformed because it will only get worse if we think more cars are the answer.

  • Jimbo

    completely agree. good post

  • Jimbo

    people who want transportation reform are also against this. it is a bandaid project that will deliver very little relief in 5 years, vs. investing in a bigger better project that will provide much better relief in 15 yrs. people are too impatient and the city likes to throw away money. its not about car culture. once we spend the money on this half as$ed project, its gone and we cant do it over.

  • Gezellig

    Yup! Thankfully for SF, LOS–while not dead–is no longer a project-killer under CEQA. Which is really a big deal for advancing many complete streets projects going forward.

    It also means if/when there are delays, people won’t be able to hide behind LOS as an excuse.

  • Justin

    It’s ridiculous for the city to try to delay this much needed project that has been stalled and delayed for too long!!!!! Especially when after completion of this project that there will be more trees and not less. Look I understand stripping out existing trees for construction isn’t pleasant, but like what was said is that there will be more trees after construction, ok maybe not as mature and tall once planted, but like any other living life, things will mature, in this case with trees when planted, they might be small but they’ll grow tall and mature being able to sequester more CO2 long term, yes it will take time. In addition, when BRT opens, if ever, it has the potential to reduce traffic congestion therefore further reducing carbon emissions even more. To me this is a win-win, it’s time for the city to move forward with this project and get it to the construction phase, IT CAN NO LONGER WAIT ANY MORE!!!!!!!!!

  • hp2ena

    Yes, it is very well true that the loss of trees will have an effect on the canopy and on the traffic calming for decades. However, why this wasn’t suggested during the Environmental Review process is beyond me.

  • jd_x

    “For one thing, our average street tree mortality rate is 50%.”

    What does this mean? All trees eventually die, so tree mortality is 100%. Do you mean how many die each year? In that case, your number is way off: it’s actually 4% (see Urban Forest Plan, pg 47, Strategy 2.1: http://www.sf-planning.org/ftp/files/plans-and-programs/planning-for-the-city/urban-forest-plan/UrbanForestPlan-121814_Final_WEB.pdf).

    I agree that there will be hit to the canopy in the short-term, but I think it’s a small price to pay. And if you read through the Urban Forest Plan (linked above) which became officially policy last year, you’ll see that the goal is to add 50,000 street trees which will compensate for way more than lost here. Thus, in the bigger picture of SF’s urban forest (which indeed is one of the worst among big cities), the short-term loss of large trees is well worth the benefit of getting massively-improved public transit on Van Ness.

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