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Lake Merritt Tree Supporters Unmoved By Public Works Tour By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Tuesday January 24, 2006

If an Oakland Public Works Agency guided walk around the south end of Lake Merritt was designed to dampen criticism of the city’s plan to remove more than 200 trees, it didn’t exactly work. 

Lake Merritt neighborhood activist Laurie Gordon said in a follow-up e-mail to fellow tree preservationists, “I really did appreciate the time and explanations given by” the Public Works staff, and “I thought they were very patient and well prepared,” but she urged tree supporters to continue to “call or e-mail your protests” about saving particular trees. 

In connection with Measure DD, Oakland’s $198 million water bond measure passed in 2002, the city has planned major construction projects around Lake Merritt that will involve the removal of approximately 225 trees and the planting of more than 500 new ones. City staff members are emphasizing that when the Measure DD construction project is finished, there will be a 52 percent increase in the total number of trees around Lake Merritt. 

Final decision on which trees will remain and which will be removed will be made by the city arborist this week. Construction on the Measure DD Lake Merritt projects is scheduled to begin this summer. 

The most extensive portion of the Measure DD Lake Merritt construction—and the portion that will involve the most trees—will take place at the southern end of the lake. The channel which connects the lake with the estuary—running through a series of small culverts—will be completely opened to allow its original free tidal flow. 

A tidal wetlands will be established between the channel and the Kaiser Convention Center parking lot in an area that now contains a long stand of trees. In addition, because the 14th Street/12th Street interchange at the foot of Lake Merritt will be drastically reduced, the Kaiser Convention Center parking lot itself will be reduced and completely refigured. City staff members estimate that three quarters of the Lake Merritt tree removal involves what is called the 12th Street Project portion of Measure DD construction. 

City Arborist Dan Gallagher said that the trees along the proposed wetland had to be removed “because raptor birds would find that a convenient place to hide and prey on the shoreline birds, and that would be the end of the shoreline bird habitat.” 

Gallagher said planners were trying to duplicate conditions along the California tidal wetlands “where you almost never see trees growing next to the water.” 

City staff have said that the majority of the remainder of the trees need to be removed either because they are diseased or subject to rot, or have been planted in areas that either restrict the tree’s growth or stand in the way of improvements planned for the parklands surrounding the lake. 

But in a letter sent to Oakland officials immediately following the tour, Oakland resident Patricia Durham wrote, “Many of us believe that these trees—ungainly, mature, aging, out of place as they might be considered by some—have a beauty, serenity and stability that is irreplaceable, and in short supply in our community today. They may not be ‘valuable’ according to a horticulturist’s definition. They might not have been the ‘best’ selection for the location when first planted. They are here now, most of them thriving, most of them familiar, and most of them beloved—despite their eccentricities or because of them—by a lot of folks who walk, run, bicycle, boat, drive, or sit at the Lake. Each tree is beautiful in its own way. The premise should have been to keep them, wherever possible.” 

“The wonderful promise of renovations at Lake Merritt is sadly compromised by this impending, irreversible threat to its existing trees and associated wildlife populations,” Durham wrote. “Many of us worked hard to create this plan for Lake Merritt. Never did we conceive that essential assets of Lake Merritt would be destroyed in order to ‘rebuild’ it.” 

According to Public Information Officer Karen Boyd of the Oakland City Administrator’s office, the original plans called for the removal of more than 300 trees. But responding to citizen complaints, intervention from the offices of Oakland City Councilmembers Nancy Nadel, Pat Kernighan, and Jane Brunner, and “indications from city staff that ‘that’s a lot of trees,’” the list was pared down by 75. 

Lake Merritt trees scheduled for removal have been tagged with red-colored notices, but in what appears to be a form of guerrilla protest, city workers say that several of the red tags have been removed without city authorization. 

On a damp, overcast Saturday morning, Measure DD Landscape Project Coordinator Lyle Oehler and arborist Gallagher led some 15 to 20 residents on a three-hour tour that began on the west side of the lake at the old boat house that once housed the Public Works Agency, crossed under 12th Street to the parking lot of the Kaiser Convention Center, and ended on the east side of the lake along Lakeshore Avenue. While Oehler and Gallagher gave detailed explanations of the thinking behind each set of tree removals, participants peppered them with questions, and sometimes attempted to draw them into debate. 

At one point, when a participant told Oehler that a proposed new parking lot at the old boat house was not authorized in the text of Measure DD, Oehler replied, “It’s just not possible for a bond measure to get into that level of construction detail.” 

And at another point, after Oehler said he was “only here to talk about tree removal” and not the overall direction of the Measure DD construction projects, participants asked him, “Well, if you’re not the best person to talk with, who is?” 

Oehler suggested they contact their councilmembers.?