By Dave Schwab
A last-ditch effort is underway to save a row of 20-plus California pepper canopy trees in Old Town alongside Presidio Golf Course, which are imperiled by the Juan Street Improvement Project.
The $8 million project seeks to implement Old Town Pedestrian Master Plan improvements addressing infrastructure deficiencies on Juan Street, one of San Diego’s oldest roads.
In late August 2014, Mayor Kevin Faulconer and city officials held a press conference lauding Juan Street as a model project and “a perfect example of the city’s ‘One Dig’ philosophy,” a strategy enveloping multiple infrastructure improvements into a single project.
In addition to replacing the existing water main and storm drain, city officials said Juan Street will be repaved and its sidewalks replaced. Construction is taking place one segment of Juan Street at a time to minimize impacts on traffic.
The notion of the trees coming down has some neighbors, community planners and park enthusiasts riled.
“We’re against it,” said Thurston Coe, Old Town Community Planning Group chair. “At first [city officials] said it would be just a few trees — and now it’s almost all of them.”
Coe said the aging trees don’t require much water and are part of historic Old Town’s fabric.
“The city of San Diego is planning to remove more than 20 mature, 65-year-old pepper trees from Juan Street in the heart of Old Town and people are mad,” said neighbor Maris Brancheau. “The city says the storm water drains they are putting in will include heavy equipment that will damage the trees’ roots. The community wants the drain moved or the equipment scaled back, or any effort possible to keep the trees.”
Brancheau added the sidewalk abutting the row of trees is “barely used as it is on the opposite side of Old Town State Historic Park.”
“The trees, they’re beautiful,” said park sympathizer Annie Macpherson. “I hope there is a way that we can save some of these trees, or move them to another place.”
A member of a Plein Air painting group, Macpherson and other artists spent a recent afternoon capturing the pepper trees, which have been targeted for elimination, in an effort to popularize their plight.
“We wanted to immortalize — and memorialize — them,” she said. “If they have to come down, we’d like to have at least done something to preserve them through art.”
After a careful examination of the row of pepper trees by experts engaged by the city, it was determined they had to go, said city spokesperson Mónica Muñoz.
“The pepper trees primarily on Juan between Wallace and Twiggs have lifted and cracked the sidewalks,” Muñoz said. “These trees are no longer used when city projects require street trees because of the damage they do to the infrastructure and because of their classification as ‘invasive.’”
Munoz said are two arborists engaged by the city on the Juan Street project evaluated all the trees along the alignment of the project.
“Both concluded that about 20 pepper trees needed to be removed because they would likely not survive the root pruning, the impact of the construction activities and the installation of the new improvements,” Muñoz said.
Muñoz said the Juan Street Project team met with local community planners and promised to “consider the option of having each tree evaluated as the sidewalk panels are removed. Once the roots are exposed, the condition of the roots … and the overall health of the tree will be taken into consideration to determine if the tree can be left in its original spot.”
All city sidewalk projects now include root barriers to prevent root intrusion,” Muñoz said. “The tree roots would have to be pruned in order to install the barrier and when the roots are pruned, the canopy also has to be pruned to balance the tree.”
“If a tree cannot be saved, another tree will be planted in its place,” said Munoz, noting three species – the coast live oak, the evergreen oak and the cork oak — have been approved as part of the site development permit for Juan Street project
“We understand the emotional connection to the pepper trees, but the City has to consider the health and safety of the public and the potential for damage by allowing trees to remain where they are when they may not survive,” Munoz said.
The city’s landscape standards, adopted in 1997, include the pepper tree as an invasive species that should not be used in public rights-of-way.
Councilmember Todd Gloria’s community representative Molly Chase said “Councilmember Gloria understands the important role the pepper trees along Juan Street play in the character of the community and has shared this concern with the project team. The councilmember has asked that city staff make every effort to save the pepper trees and protect them in place. If there are trees that the arborists determined would be irreparably harmed by the project, or would cause a health and safety concern to the public and cannot be saved, they will be replaced with trees that are approved by the city and were designated as appropriate replacements in the site development permit.”
Old Town’s pepper trees are deserving of protection, said Bruce Coons, executive director of Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO), the state’s oldest continually operating historic preservation organization.
“The Peruvian (California) Pepper trees first brought here by the Spanish in 1830 are a symbol of early California, and a symbol of Old town,” Coons said. “To remove these trees would be a big problem: Everybody loves them.”
Coons lamented that San Diego used to be known for its tree-lined streets, which have largely disappeared.
“Every time a tree gets specimen-size, the tree people want to remove them,” Coons said. “We’ve taken them all out. It’s terrible.”
—Contact Dave Schwab at email@example.com.