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Police gather between protesters and crew coming to Inman Square on Wednesday to cut down four honey locust trees. (Photo: Jonathan Harris)

The city took down four mature honey locust trees as expected Wednesday on Vellucci Plaza in Inman Square, despite a rally of some 40 people who gathered to protest.

Even as residents were mourning the loss of the 50-year-old trees, new alarms were being raised over tree-cutting expected Thursday at Christ Church Cambridge, on Cambridge Common near Harvard Square – an echo of the threatened removal of a century-old red oak nearby for Harvard Divinity School development and, more broadly, an epidemic of tree removals leaving Cambridge vulnerable to the increasingly harsh effects of climate change.

Inman Square protesters began arriving at around 7:30 a.m.; the first of around a dozen police officers started showing up about a half-hour later to stand between the residents and a crew who came to take down the trees, said Jonathan Harris, a leader of the Friends of Inman Square group. The group opposes the current plan to redesign of the square, as well as the cutting down of its trees.

The stumps of two honey locust trees at Vellucci Plaza in Inman Square. (Photo: Jonathan Harris)

There was “a very large group of police surrounding trees, a line of police putting in fencing and providing cover for crews,” Harris said. “There were no arrests or open confrontation. But it was certainly a large police presence.”

Police sent the cutting crews away, which protesters celebrated – but the crews came back at around 9:30 to 10 a.m. as the number of protesters dropped, Harris said. Over the course of the day, the honey locusts were cut down and hauled away.

Two honey locust trees are to remain, “but we have raised questions about whether work on the new roadway, which will pass close to them, may lead to root damage and their subsequent demise,” Harris said. “This is especially an issue for the largest tree, on the north side of the park … because the roadway will pass very close to it.”

In June, a healthy, 36 caliper-inch pin oak had to be taken down when a contractor hired by Eversource damaged the roots.

Chain saws await use by tree-cutting crews Wednesday in Inman Square. (Photo: Elena Saporta)

City councillors were sent an email Wednesday by City Manager Louis A, DePasquale in which he noted that “the community and the city have spent a significant amount of time discussing the impacts the redesign will have on the current Vellucci Plaza. If we could make the critical safety improvements while leaving the existing plaza untouched, we would; however, this is not possible.”

“I know that the Inman Square redesign process has been a very difficult one, and it has never been my intent for this project to divide the city,” DePasquale said, in the letter provided by Lee Gianetti, director of communications and community relations. “I firmly believe that the city’s plan is the best viable option to ensure the Inman Square is safe for all users, regardless of their mode of travel to or through the Square. The primary focus of this project has always been and continues to be about safety.”

Legal appeal

The two-year, $7 million change to Inman Square would split Vellucci Plaza in two, and it’s the shrinking of the current plaza that requires the removal of the trees. (Birch trees in raised granite planters there are to be removed for replanting at Danehy Park, city planners say.) The redesign bends Hampshire Street between the smaller plaza and a new bump-out on the other side of the street to make an awkward, elongated intersection with Cambridge Street safer – essentially by turning it into two intersections.

Opponents say the changes are not safer and are filing a legal appeal against the overall plan, arguing that the plaza is open space that needs special permitting if it’s to be disrupted by a road. “This is a precedent for other cases,” Harris said. “The city’s position is that they can run a road through open space at any time without any permits or any review process. We think that can’t be right – and our lawyer thinks that can’t be right.”

A need for advice on legal language delayed filing the appeal until Friday, Harris said. The Friends of Inman Square had hoped it would take place Tuesday.

While acknowledging the group’s right to appeal, a letter sent Monday to group lawyer Olympia Bowker from Inspectional Services Department commissioner Ranjit Singanayagam cites a 1975 case called Harrison v. Textron in asserting that “neither the layout, relocation and use of a public way nor the redesign and reconstruction of a public park is subject to the zoning ordinance.”

Harvard Square trees

In Harvard Square, Christ Church Cambridge at Zero Garden St. is reconfiguring its parking and removing two linden trees in the process – but resident Elena Saporta, reporting a “long conversation” with a Christ Church building administrator, said she was told both trees were scanned by ultrasound by two contractors and found to be in poor health. The church plans to replace the trees, she was told. Similarly, a silverbell tree behind the church was described as “practically dead,” having gone into decline after the church installed a brick patio around its base.

Saporta said she asked about postponing the tree-cutting, but was told the work was scheduled months ago.

Meanwhile, the administrator of a Facebook page devoted to saving the Harvard Divinity School tree posted Friday with some potentially good news: A Harvard contractor is “supposedly looking at the Divinity Tree with ‘an eye toward its preservation.’”

“It has also taken tremendous effort to even get here,” the page administrator wrote. “It took work from students, faculty, staff, alumni, abutting property owners and their children (the kids made cards for our tree), the neighborhood council, Cambridge, Boston, Watertown, Newton and Somerville tree activists, a couple of authors who’ve written about trees, local politicians and several articles and op-eds.”

This post was updated Jan. 31, 2019, to remove references to it being specifically city Public Works employees cutting down trees the previous day in Inman Square. It was updated Feb. 1, 2019, to say the legal appeal was filed Friday.