Sunday, April 21, 2024

Three trees at risk of removal at the Tobin Montessori and Vassal Lane Upper School site were planted when the school was built 50 years ago. (Photo: Jan Devereux)

With the “Resilient Cambridge Plan” just released and the strengthened Tree Protection Ordinance awaiting the City Council’s final vote next week, I write to ask that the council and the city manager unite to reconsider the proposed removal of three very significant and healthy trees on the Tobin Montessori and Vassal Lane Upper School site.

For background, the city is proposing to remove 94 of 129 existing trees on the site – that’s 73 percent. Granted, many of these trees are small or medium-sized, but they will be replaced with even smaller trees, costing taxpayers money and all the more reason to make a greater effort to save and protect more of the existing very large trees on the site.

The overwhelming majority of the tree removal is proposed for the sun-exposed west side of the site, which borders the Mobil station and state armory, both heavily paved heat islands. Preserving mature trees on that side of the school would shield the school and buffer noise and mitigate air pollution from Fresh Pond Parkway. Under the current plan, though, very few new trees will be planted on the west side along the new driveway, bike and pedestrian path and bus loop, making it a heat island that will be unpleasant to travel in a warming world. This new school is designed to last at least 50 years, until 2075, and the world will be much warmer during most of the building’s useful life.

The three trees in question, planted when the school was built 50 years ago, are in a triangular formation along the current driveway where it turns to the right. Their root systems and upper canopies are intricately interconnected, and saving all three is vital to the site’s ecosystem and habitat. Their proposed removal will leave a canopy gap that will take many decades to replace. With all the pavement and vehicles circulating the new driveway and bus loop, the site’s west side will be scorching hot without the cooling benefits and shade of a mature canopy. The preschool playground and entrance for the youngest students are being placed on the west side of the site – where the temperature will be much hotter without more large trees.

Doug Brown has calculated that these three trees alone account for about a quarter of the canopy proposed for removal and that 23 new 3-inch trees will need to be planted elsewhere on the site to compensate – though 189 new 30-inch trees would need to be planted to actually replace the volume of trees lost. This costs the city money, and there is no guarantee those tiny new trees will ever grow to the size of these three giants. The students attending the new school, which won’t open until the fall of 2025, will be parents themselves before any of the new trees are large enough to provide significant shade.

Please ask the design team to think harder about how to make the new school a model for tree preservation and resilience. Cambridge likes to set an example for climate change resilience and preparation for other cities to follow – is unnecessary tree removal the one we want to set?

Jan Devereux is a former city councillor and vice mayor.