Posts about Trees
The sidewalk on the east side of Georgia Avenue in downtown Silver Spring just got a makeover, with new brick pavers and street trees. But will it have enough room for everyone who wants to use it?
Montgomery County's Department of Housing and Community Affairs (DHCA) managed the $650,000 project, which began this summer and lasted about five months. The agency's main goal was to level and lower the sidewalk to meet the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act. It replaced the existing concrete sidewalk, built in the 1980s, with sturdier and more attractive brick pavers, and created large new bumpouts at some intersections.
The new sidewalk is very attractive and will hopefully encourage visitors and shoppers to stray from the Ellsworth Drive strip and check out the businesses on Georgia. But it also reveals the tension between different users on Silver Spring's often-cramped sidewalks.
DHCA also removed all of the mature Zelkova trees along Georgia, arguing that the sidewalk reconstruction would disturb the trees and kill them. The new trees are Princeton or Lacebark Elm trees, which will apparently improve the visibility of shops and restaurants from the street.
The old sidewalks had trees in tree grates, allowing room that businesses could put out tables and chairs and leave enough sidewalk for people to walk past comfortably. But the new trees now sit in long, wide planter boxes with little gaps in between for street lights or people getting out of parked cars.
This isn't the only place in downtown Silver Spring with new planters. The county's Department of Transportation (MCDOT) also installed the same planters along Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street, except with three-foot-high hedges. Some planters, like one on Fenton Street, extend for most of a city block to discourage jaywalking.
In 2009, when planning on the Georgia Avenue sidewalk project started, county-hired arborist Steve Castrogiovanni recommended doing the same thing with the new trees to "strike a [balance] between the trees' needs and the needs of pedestrians." But officials endorsed the bigger planters, saying it would give the trees more soil and help them live longer.
Street trees have a lot of health and environmental benefits. They can provide a feeling of enclosure on a street or sidewalk, calming traffic on busy streets like Georgia Avenue, and making pedestrians feel safer.
However, these planter boxes seem to provide the wrong kind of enclosure. Crowded sidewalks can be a good thing, creating a feeling of excitement and vitality on a city street. But when you push pedestrians and outdoor dining tables into too small a space, it can feel uncomfortable, and people won't want to stick around and spend money.
That's why restaurateur Jackie Greenbaum, who owns Jackie's, Sidebar, and Quarry House Tavern, all on Georgia Avenue, didn't want trees planted on the narrow sidewalk outside her businesses. "THIS WILL ELIMINATE MUCH OF MY PATIO SEATING!" she wrote in a 2010 email to DHCA. "This is NOT an improvement and is unnecessary, even undesirable." In the end, DHCA agreed not to plant any there.
Having healthy street trees and vibrant sidewalks aren't mutually exclusive. DHCA could have still created a bigger soil pit for the trees, giving them room to grow, while putting tree grates or permeable pavers on top, ensuring that there's still enough sidewalk space.
Wider sidewalks mean ample room for walking, for dining, and for nature. Photo by Jim Malone on Flickr.
And if county officials really wanted planters, they could have at least used a more attractive design, like these low, stone planters in NoMa that provide space for trees and plants while staying out of the way. Or they could have looked at a bioswale that cleans and filters stormwater in addition to looking pretty.
The real issue isn't the planters, but that the sidewalks on Georgia Avenue aren't appreciably wider. DHCA's project was simply to make the sidewalks meet ADA regulations.
This sidewalk may not get rebuilt for another 30 years, meaning we've missed an opportunity to have a larger conversation about how Georgia Avenue works. Wider sidewalks mean we wouldn't have to decide between landscaping, walking space, and outdoor seating. They mean we could have added new features, like benches, or a "shared use trail" for cyclists similar to the Green Trail on Wayne Avenue.
Doing this would require taking space for cars, which today constitutes the vast majority of Georgia Avenue, and giving it back to people. While that would probably be bad for drivers passing through, it would ultimately be a good thing for downtown Silver Spring, whose historic main street would become a more attractive, pleasant, and safer place to walk and spend time.
At first glance, the tree at the northeast corner of 8th and K Streets, NE appears to be buried in asphalt. The truth is much more interesting.
To comply with Americans with Disabilities Act regulations, DDOT rebuilt the intersection of West Virginia Avenue NE, 8th Street and K Street in the H Street neighborood. This intersection is a busy transfer point between the 90 and D Metrobus lines and has a lot of foot traffic.
DDOT has installed modern curb ramps at all pedestrian crossings, and they've repaired the concrete in order to smooth out some potentially dangerous bumps. The elderly and disabled now have a smoother path to get from bus to bus as they travel across town.
(It would be nice if DDOT would restripe the crosswalks with higher-visibility zebra/piano striping, but perhaps that's a subject for another blog post.)
Within the project limits, there were two trees whose roots were lifting the sidewalk. This created dangerous tripping hazards and the narrowed sidewalks made it difficult for those in wheelchairs to use the sidewalk.
Instead of concrete, construction workers have used porous pavement in these areas that extend all the way around each tree. This makes the sidewalks a bit wider, eliminates the need to trim weeds around the base of the trees, and allows more water to filter through the ground to the trees' roots.
It will be interesting to see how well this pavement works, and if we'll be seeing it used more widely around town in the near future.
Residents really value the trees in their neighborhoods, and when the city cuts them down, it's an irreversible decision. Dupont Circle Nord Wennerstrom wrote in about trees at Ross Elementary, on R Street, suddenly disappearing:
Three years ago GGW's David Alpert wrote an article about tree removal on the 1700 block of Corcoran Street, NW that caused a neighborhood uproar. Well, three years later and one block north, it's happening again.
On Dec. 31, 2012, on the grounds of the Ross Elementary School, contractors for the Department of General Services (DGS) chopped down one large failing oak and then chopped down two large perfectly healthy oaks
— among the largest trees on the block. DGS, which maintains DCPS buildings and grounds, did not notify the neighborhood, the school's principal, the DCPS Chancellor's office or Councilmember Jack Evans. DDOT/Urban Forestry was similarly unaware.
Neighbors intervened to prevent a complete clear cuttingWennerstrom's detailed explanation about the DGS's and Andersen's stated reasons for taking down the trees (which Wennerstrom finds dubious) are below. Certainly the biggest issue is not communicating about the issue ahead of time. Further, there is the question of whether arborists tend to be overzealous about taking out trees.
— today one last oak still stands. Councilmember Evans' office has gotten involved along with ANC 2B03 rep Stephanie Maltz. The contractors on site, Andersen Tree Expert Co., said an arborist had certified the need for the trees to come down. Actually, the arborist is an Andersen employee, and Andersen got the job for chopping down the trees and was paid by the tree.
I've talked to several arborists, both at DDOT's Urban Forestry Administration and private arborists I've hired to prune the tree on my own property. You might expect someone whose job is caring for trees to want to do everything possible to maximize tree life, but I've found that many arborists would take down a lot more trees, and a lot earlier, than most residents would.
Our block, not far from Ross, has a number of very large oak trees. Some of them have fungus starting to grow near the roots, which will eventually kill the trees. However, they could last many more years before that happens. On the other hand, over time this will weaken the roots, and eventually, one might fall in a large storm, damaging nearby houses.
When we had a private arborist to look at our private tree, I asked him about some of the street trees along the block. He said he would probably recommend taking several of those down (not the one closest to our house, fortunately) sooner rather than later.
The experts would often choose to take trees down as soon as anything seems wrong. Meanwhile, residents love their trees, and want to keep them up. DDOT's Urban Forestry Administration has to balance residents' desire to preserve trees against the profession's predilection for removal.
It's hard to know who is right. The arborist profession might know what we don't. On the other hand, they could fall victim to orthodoxies around an arbitrary "standard." Certainly, DDOT has its standards, like cutting all branches up to 8 feet away from houses, just as the traffic engineering profession has controversial standards for road curvature, clear zones and more. The 8-foot tree standard keeps branches from hitting the houses, but also yields odd-shaped trees and cuts down on the shade that helps keep houses cool.
Here is the rest of Wennerstrom's letter:
On Dec. 31, Andersen reps on site and contacted by telephone offered several reasons for the demolitionThis weekend, Wennerstrom followed up with an update:
— including root rot due to excessive ground moisture, the poor health of the trees, the trees were causing basement leaks and, what turns out to be the real reason, trenching needs to be done around the perimeter of the building to remedy the leaks, an action that will endanger the trees.
In fact, on Dec. 26, an Andersen inspection determined there was no root rot yet on Dec. 31 their reps insisted root rot was the cause; the Ward 4 arborist Joel Conlon, who inspected the trees on Dec. 31, and says there's no evidence the trees were in poor health, contradicting what Andersen reps were telling the neighbors; and landscape architect James Urban, one of the nation's leading authorities on design with trees and soils in urban settings, questioned the aggressive trenching/leak remediation plan proposed. Urban says tree and root pruning, along with careful trenching would permit the need leak remediation without destroying the trees.
Attempts to get information from DGS continue to be frustrating. For example, we requested the written evaluation that justified the trees' removal and we only received a cover letter and a crudely drawn schematic diagram. Not included, and crucial to the discussion, were Andersen's eight pages of tree evaluation forms with several questionable observations.
Now DGS has come up with a new reason for the trees' removal. In the Jan. 9 edition of the Dupont Current, DGS spokesperson Kenneth Diggs is quoted as saying the trees are causing the sidewalk to buckle. That's completely untrue
— no sidewalks are buckling. Mr. Diggs and DGS made that up.
We enjoy having Ross Elementary as our across-the-street neighbor and recognize the school's need for building improvements
— we've already lived through three months of a very noisy and filthy renovation this past summer.
DGS may have done everything "by the book", but they continue to do a really poor job of communicating with the public.
On the Ross front, I've heard from another DGS spokesperson. The bottom line is that DGS never considered any basement leak remediation methods that would also have saved the trees
— they were doomed from the outset. Their arborist's certification that the trees had to go was a pro forma move.
Nevertheless, in a January 2, 2013 email response to Ward 2 Council Member Jack Evans about the Ross situation, DGS Director Brian Hanlon wrote: "I never take lightly the removal of any tree." (Imagine if DGS were in charge of RGIII's healthcare, rather than microsurgery for his knee, they would have amputated his leg).
Trees are an important part of any urban environment, providing shade, oxygen, and even calming traffic. Of course, they're also great to look at. As a result, protecting and expanding Montgomery County's tree canopy has been a growing issue in recent months.
A study by the University of Vermont for the Montgomery County Planning Department found that while half of the county is covered by trees, the county's urban areas have a much smaller tree canopy.
Just 19% of White Flint is covered by trees, while downtown Silver Spring has a 14% tree canopy. The smallest tree canopy is in the Montgomery Hills business district south of Georgia Avenue and the Beltway, which has just 8% coverage. Urban areas should have at least a 25% tree canopy, planners say.
One of the best ways to expand our tree canopy in places like downtown Silver Spring or White Flint is by planting more street trees next to sidewalks and in medians. Trees can provide significant health benefits and can even be an economic windfall for places with more of them.
A 2001 survey of Wheaton residents found they overwhelmingly preferred streets with trees for downtown Wheaton. According to urban designer Dan Burden, spending between $250 and $600 to plant a tree can yield up to $90,000 in economic benefits for the surrounding area.
For decades, transportation planners saw street trees as a safety hazard because they blocked drivers' vision. For that reason, County Executive Ike Leggett actually recommended removing street trees from busy roads in 2008. However, we know now that trees can "reduce the 'optical width'" of a street, slowing drivers down and making it safer for everybody.
Today, there are multiple efforts to add more street trees in Montgomery County. This fall, the Planning Department introduced a program called Shades of Green that provides free shade trees and two years of care to eligible property owners in downtown Silver Spring, downtown Wheaton and Montgomery Hills. 30 trees have already been planted under the program in those three areas.
Nonprofit group Conservation Montgomery has been organizing tree plantings of their own. Last month, they teamed up with Casey Trees, a forestry organization based in the District, to plant in Montgomery Hills. They've also received grant money in partnership with fellow nonprofits Safe Silver Spring and Uno Granito de Arena to plant trees in Long Branch.
Unfortunately, these efforts are undermined by poor maintenance of our existing tree canopy. After heavy storms last year, Pepco began trimming trees in earnest before falling branches could take down power lines. According to their website, Pepco uses nationally-recognized standards and practices for tree trimming, but residents complain they're being too aggressive, mangling trees and trespassing on private property.
Downtown Silver Spring resident Gull sent us some photos of Pepco workers cutting down trees along 16th Street and Spring Street last month. In an email, he called it a "serious quality of life issue" for him and his neighbors. "It's very easy to see into communities, houses and apartments that were once obscured from view," he wrote. "I see it as a big problem that instead of planting more trees in our urban areas, we're removing them and making above ground utilities the primary thing visible to us."
Last spring, County Councilmembers Roger Berliner and Marc Elrich drafted a bill that would set higher environmental standards for tree trimming and require power companies to ask homeowners' permission before doing any work on their property. However, the bill was deemed unconstitutional and set aside after the derecho storm in July brought down power lines and knocked out power to thousands of residents.
A felled tree next to a house under construction in Chevy Chase. Proposed legislation aims to help protect or replace trees like this.
Since then, the council has introduced two new pieces of legislation aimed at protecting trees. Bill 35-12 would require property owners cutting trees down on smaller lots to pay into a fund dedicated to replacing those trees. The county's Forest Conservation Law already requires this on lots over an acre in size. Another, Bill 41-12, would require a permit to do work in a public street that might damage a tree. They've set a public hearing later this month to hear testimony about both bills.
The legislation has support from Conservation Montgomery and the Montgomery Countryside Alliance, but has gotten a lot of pushback from local home builders. Renewing Montgomery, a group of small home builders, argued that the original bill proposed last summer restricts the rights of property owners.
As our urban areas grow, there's an inevitable tension between the built environment and the natural environment. However, protecting our tree canopy has many benefits for people as well. Whether by planting new trees or preserving old ones, we can make our communities healthier, stronger and more prosperous.
The County Council will hold a public hearing on both bills Thursday, January 17 at 7:30pm at the Council Office Building, 100 Maryland Avenue in Rockville. For more information and to sign up to testify, visit their website. You can also sign Conservation Montgomery's petition supporting both bills. And if you'd like to learn more about the tree canopy in your neighborhood, check out the Planning Department's tree canopy explorer.
Volunteers planted a dozen trees in the Montgomery Hills neighborhood of Silver Spring Saturday morning. Nonprofits Casey Trees and Conservation Montgomery organized the community tree planting.
Based in Brookland in the District, Casey Trees was founded 10 years ago to help restore the city's dwindling tree canopy. Since then, they've planted over 10,000 trees in DC. For Saturday's tree planting, Casey Trees' first project in Montgomery County, they teamed up with Conservation Montgomery, an environmental group advocating for a range of issues from tree-lined streets to watershed protection. The same day, they held another planting in conjunction with energy company Clean Currents at the Blairs in downtown Silver Spring.
About 20 volunteers from around the region came out to plant a mix of swamp white oak, sweetgum and redbud trees along Seminary Road, Columbia Boulevard, and in Public Parking Lot 12, located at the corner of the two streets. Volunteers were given a demonstration on tool safety and planting before setting out with saplings and shovels.
Conservation Montgomery drew up plans for where each tree would go, working with a county arborist to avoid underground utilities, overhead wires and other barriers. They also consulted with neighbors. "We moved one [proposed] tree because it would create too much shade in one gentleman's garden," said Arlene Bruhn, who sits on Conservation Montgomery's board of directors.
Jim Woodworth, director of tree planting for Casey Trees, noted the "traffic calming benefits" of street trees, which will not only look good and provide shade but encourage drivers to slow down. The planting site is less than half a mile from the Georgia Avenue/Capital Beltway interchange, one of the state's busiest intersections. Studies also show that one street tree can result in over $90,000 in direct benefits, ranging from increased property values to less air pollution.
Visiting Casey Trees and Conservation Montgomery's tree planting in Montgomery Hills reminded me of a tree I planted myself a few blocks away. As a first-grader on the Woodlin Elementary School student council, I participated in the planting of this tree on the school grounds in 1993. I was surprised to find it's still there, though it could probably use a little pruning, as it's gotten very scraggly.
Casey Trees will hold additional community tree plantings through December, though there aren't any more scheduled in Montgomery County. You can learn more about them and their volunteer opportunities by visiting their website. You can also visit Conservation Montgomery's website to learn more about their organization as well.
A section of Florida Avenue NW will soon better provide for all its users, including drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians. The street will get wider sidewalks, street trees, and bike lanes after residents and DDOT collaborated to redesign it.
This section of Florida Avenue has enjoyed significant population growth over the past decade. New condo towers went up on both sides of the street and more are on the way.
The street's wide, auto-oriented roadway may have been appropriate for the area's previous use a warehouse district. Today, however, most of the industrial uses are gone and old shops and parking lots are turning into mixed-use residential and commercial buildings.
The project area encompasses 9th Street NW from U Street to Florida Avenue, and Florida Avenue NW to just past Sherman Avenue. The project also includes the southernmost block of Sherman Avenue and the northernmost block of Vermont Avenue.
More crosswalks and better sidewalks
Increasing the share of trips taken by means other than an automobile is an important goal for the District and especially for the U Street area, which is already at its car-carrying capacity. Making walking safer and more enjoyable is a good way to encourage people to shift from driving to walking for more of their trips.
The agency's designs call for widening the sidewalks and installing a planting strip buffer between the sidewalk and the roadway. Separating pedestrians from high-speed traffic with a row of parked cars or a planting strip improves pedestrian comfort. Few people want to walk within 2 feet of speeding traffic.
Crossing Florida Avenue today is a daunting task. The road's width encourages speeding and provides no median refuge for pedestrians. The new design resolves this problem with a median, a few bulb-outs, a narrowed roadway, striped crosswalks, and a new traffic light.
One of the more notable changes is that DDOT intends to turn the intersection of 9th Street, V Street, and Florida Avenue into a signalized intersection. Regular concertgoers know this intersection as the location of the 9:30 Club. The intersection's current form requires concertgoers to cross a wide section of Florida Avenue while hoping that motorists will stop for them at the crosswalks. The new signal will provide more order to this process.
DDOT plans to reconfigure the intersection of Florida Avenue and Vermont Avenue to slow traffic turning from southbound Florida Avenue to Vermont Avenue. Currently, the intersection is designed like a highway ramp for southbound traffic. The new design will force motorists to make a sharper right turn, which will cause them to slow down. This reduces the chance that a pedestrian will suffer severe injury or death if struck while crossing the street.
New bike lanes, bike boxes, and sharrows
The new street will receive bike lanes in some stretches and sharrows in others. DDOT will also implement some of its new bike practices here. The agency will place bike boxes on Florida Avenue at Vermont Avenue to aid turning and merging movements. A new southbound bike lane on Vermont Avenue will connect the Florida Avenue bike lanes with the V Street lane, which stretches to the foot of Adams Morgan 10 blocks west.
The District is now starting to paint green bike lanes to help differentiate the lanes from regular street lanes. The agency will apply the same treatment to assist cyclists who wish to continue on Florida Avenue beyond Sherman Avenue.
More trees, less impervious pavement
The proposal calls for adding 57 street trees, one of the most notable visual and environmental changes. At the first community meeting a year ago, DDOT planner Gabriela Vega noted that her agency was under a mandate to increase the District's tree canopy.
Trees reduce the urban heat island effect, raise property values, and reduce stormwater flow into the sewers. Converting some of the asphalt pavement into grassy planting strips and medians will help the soil absorb rainwater and reduce the pressure on the combined sewer system.
Reducing stormwater volume is especially important in light of recent storms that caused minor flooding in one of the condo buildings on Florida Avenue. This section of Florida Avenue drains to the Northeast Boundary Tunnel, the massive century-old combined sewer that has backed up and caused flooding several times this summer in the LeDroit Park and Bloomingdale neighborhoods.
In their conversations with DDOT, residents suggested adding a median with street trees and planting strips along the curbs. In response, DDOT plans to widen the sidewalks, many of which are too narrow for wheelchairs today, and add planting strips to both sides of the street. A tree-studded median will stretch from Vermont Avenue to W Street.
Though DDOT added nearly all of the ANC's requested improvements, the agency was unable to add two important features. First, the ANC requested striped crosswalks for the intersection of Florida Avenue and W Street to aid people crossing Florida Avenue.
Richard Kenney of DDOT explained that the two lanes of southbound traffic make a crosswalk at W Street difficult. If a motorist in one lane stops for a pedestrian in the crosswalk, it would be too likely for a motorist in the second lane to continue moving.
Though a traffic signal at W Street could bring all traffic to a stop, DDOT's engineers worried that traffic would back up along Florida Avenue and block the intersection at Sherman Avenue.
The ANC also requested the addition of a striped crosswalk across Florida Avenue on the south side of the intersection with Sherman Avenue. The agency rejected this request, fearing that the left-turning traffic volumes from Sherman Avenue would be too high and cause drivers to block the intersection while waiting for pedestrians to cross.
Vega, DDOT's planner, was sympathetic to the ANC's desire to add every pedestrian accommodation possible, but said that the design process is a negotiation to balance numerous interests.
Even without these ANC-suggested changes, the project will widen sidewalks, add street trees, reduce the size of intersection corners, add bike lanes and bike boxes, remove curb cuts, and add a new traffic signal. It will create a street that is vastly better for residents on foot and on bikes.
Policy matters in the creation of complete streets
The ANC was instrumental in adding these complete street elements to the design. I volunteer as chair of the ANC's Transportation Committee and was happy to see residents, including a road engineer, mark up the original designs to add complete street elements I had not even considered.
The elected commissioners passed the list of requests and DDOT incorporated the vast majority of the requests into its design. The ANC did not get everything it wanted, but it got the majority.
Adding street trees and improving the quality of the walking experience are explicit District policy objectives that both Mayors Fenty and Gray have embraced. Though skeptics may dismiss these policy statements as electioneering, these official guidelines are critical in advocating improvements in new public projects. They provide political force for planners and citizens as they advocate for complete streets.
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