Monday, May 27, 2024

Sixteen mature trees were removed in April for a parking lot on the Alewife neighborhood’s Smith Place, according to a Cambridge Trees group on Facebook. (Photo: Doug Brown)

In the proposed Inman Square redesign, as city councillor Quinton Zondervan put it Monday, a “decision to divide Vellucci Plaza sadly has also divided the community” – neighbor against neighbor as well as environmentalists and advocates for pedestrians and bicyclists, groups that are traditionally allies.

Much of the division is about the trees that will be torn down, and much of the division could have been avoided with a better city response to anxious residents – not just now, but at almost any time over the past dozen years.

We’ve been here before, with all the big projects coming forward for permitting and zoning relief and tearing the city apart for months at a time through the disregard of city officials, who shrugged at the unbalanced explosion of units in Alewife; decided privately to ignore the performatively public processes of reimagining Central and Kendall squares; and clung too long to the myth that there was a citywide master plan when we really had a confusing jumble of documents.

The city claims to be preparing with great resolve for the ravages of climate change, yet there’s been a tremendous loss in tree canopy – especially among the city’s mature tree stock – that we will rely on to scrub poison out of the air, cool us from multiplying extreme heat days and absorb floodwaters from the land. Trees are being taken down without warning or debate by the city, the state, by Eversource and by private developers. The scrawny ones planted in scant replacement have struggled and frequently died, leaving us even further behind.

It’s this that turns every announced tree removal into a flashpoint. It’s this that has neighbors, environmentalists and bicyclists unnecessarily clawing at each other’s throats.

There’s nothing new even in this very specific issue. A policy order from city councillors all the way back in May 2010 channeled the anger and frustration of residents over watching decades-old, seemingly healthy trees be chopped down with little clear reason or explanation, and that order asked for an accounting back to 2005. “We are losing our mature tree canopy at too fast a rate,” landscaper Carolyn Shipley warned then – one year into a five-year period in which we now know Cambridge went on to lose a full 7 percent of that canopy.

Led by Zondervan before he was a councillor, the Green Cambridge group alerted the city manager in an Aug. 15, 2016, letter of the creation of its own Cambridge Trees Advisory Committee, formed because “our city trees are not doing well,” and asked the city – buttressed by an online petition with more than 100 signatures – to also form a task force. That took on an even more formal cast with a City Council policy order Feb. 13, 2017, calling for a tree task force.

The first meeting of that task force is Tuesday, which is 22 months after a task force was suggested by residents and 16 months after it was ordered by the council.

It’s a pattern by now familiar to residents from an affordable housing problem arising since the end of rent control a quarter-century ago, and with an arts economy problem obvious at least since the Deborah Mason School of Dance was forced out of the city in 2012: There is no impending crisis so large and obvious that a bit of municipal mismanagement can’t drag out into full-blown catastrophe. Residents asking for help by pointing out a problem, whether it’s light pollution or corruption on the License Commission, is more likely to be taken as an act of aggression when not treated as some kind of delusion.

The city’s failure to act and its lagging and sometimes lame response to public outcry are what result in the citizen-written zoning proposal in Alewife and its ensuing conflict, as well as the many hundreds of emails that inundate city councillors over the course of debate about Inman Square – indeed, it drags out debate: Residents have good reason to think they’re being ignored, and no reason to trust the city will act in good faith or take action before it’s too late. There have been three city managers with long experience and deep roots here, yet City Hall keeps making the same disastrous mistakes over our most serious issues, acting like its residents are crying wolf right up to the moment the wolves are at the door.

On Monday, city officials at least finally revealed how they planned to make up for the four honey locust trees lost from Vellucci Plaza: adding $50,000 in mitigation for a total 178 percent replacement of the caliper inches being taken away.

The city continues to ignore, for dubious reasons, that Harvard plants mature trees. Very simply, if Harvard can do it, Cambridge can do it.

Zondervan said Monday that he plans to suggest steps for more robust, citywide tree protections, despite the task force he called for finally getting underway.

But he has already identified a big part of the problem. 

“Because our tree canopy is in peril, the mature trees in Vellucci Plaza have become symbolic of our sometimes callous disregard for the importance of trees and nature,” he told the city manager and other officials. “I’m hoping we can take some steps to heal that rift.”

“We will need to improve our community process, [but] a better community process doesn’t mean more community meetings. It means better listening and hearing what is really being said. The next time a project requires a reduction of tree canopy, it should be spelled out from day one how we’re going to make up for that canopy loss,” he said. “It shouldn’t require this level of advocacy for us to respond.”