Three mature oak trees are due for removal Friday from the Tobin School and Vassal Lane Upper School campus. (Photo: Joy Hackel)

Three mature oak trees will be torn down Friday to make way for rebuilding the Tobin School and Vassal Lane Upper School, according to the City Manager’s Office, but a potential path to saving them is only now entering discussions despite the City Council requesting its study in 2017.

Councillors asked March 27, 2017 – or nearly four and a half years ago – that the city look at buying the Massachusetts Army National Guard armory at 406 Concord Ave., a 122,560-square-foot site with an 80-year-old building known mostly as a voting location and road-test site for the Department of Motor Vehicles. As a neighbor to the Tobin and Vassal Lane complex at 197 Vassal Lane, it was seen as a possible way to address early childhood education needs and school population growth expected with Cambridge’s continuing boom in homebuilding.

Since then, the three 50-year-old oaks have become a cause among residents disturbed by the razing of mature trees citywide to make way for development and its cost as climate change worsens, bringing extreme heat and flooding. “It is especially sad and frustrating to be mourning the imminent demise of these stately trees during a summer of cataclysmic weather events globally,” former city councillor Jan Devereux wrote in July, days before a Save the Trees rally held outside City Hall. Plans to remove the oaks took many by surprise because they weren’t on the first list of trees to be taken down.

The city says the trees must go in large part to make way for a 1.3 million-gallon stormwater storage tank that will alleviate expected floods, and that the “uncertainty associated with [the armory’s] alternative location makes it unfeasible” if construction is to stay on schedule and allow the schools to reopen in the fall of 2025.

“Any further changes to the current design program would cause significant delays,” said a Tuesday memo from city staff.

But just as the project has grown to $250 million from $200 million, its schedule has also already slipped. In April 2018, the Cambridge Public Schools district expected teardown to begin in July 2019 and for students to move in for the fall 2024 semester.

“The city has just begun a discussion”

City staffers said they did begin exploring the armory site as an alternative location for the stormwater tank, though apparently years after they were asked to look at the site.

“At this time the city has just begun a discussion about potentially purchasing the property with the Massachusetts National Guard, and there is no guarantee that there will be a positive outcome,” staffers wrote in the memo. “The city’s request to purchase the property is presently before the Armory Committee for review, thus limiting our ability to review this location as a feasible alternative location.”

The 10-page memo is by construction program manager Brendon Roy; commissioner of public works Owen O’Riordan; and assistant city manager for finance David Kale.

After a call to the City Manager’s Office for comment Thursday, Kale was described by city spokesman Lee Gianetti as the point person on the project – but as being on vacation and unable to comment until Monday. No alternative representative was offered.

Eyeing the armory

City councillor Marc McGovern, who was mayor in 2017, said Thursday that he wanted to know more about what might have delayed talks with the state, but that it was “unfortunate that we don’t have an answer yet.”

“I’d love for Cambridge to obtain the property for a whole host of reasons,” McGovern said. “I’d have hoped we’d have some indication … But the state may have said it’s not on the table in 2017 and is in 2021. Things change.”

Part of the armory site was considered for purchase in 1996 when a home was needed for the West Cambridge Youth Center, but the adjutant general of the armory turned the city away in 2000. When a new police headquarters was being discussed in 2004, the City Manager’s Office said that years of effort made it clear there would be no sale. In 2017, former deputy city manager Lisa Peterson – since retired without acknowledgment by city staff – said she didn’t think the armory was for sale.

The memo mentions that it came in response to a June 28 council order to reconsider the current plan, “most particularly with an eye to preserving the three oak trees,” but does not mention that the alternative that would be offered by the armory site was raised in the spring of 2017.

More canopy over time

There is extensive detail in the memo explaining why “the complexity of the building demolition, site reconfiguration and construction of the new building, stormwater tank and open space amenities essentially negate the possibility of preserving the three large oak trees.” The conclusion was reached after “the project team met on numerous occasions over the past two months to review potential options that would allow for the three oak trees on the western side of the existing school to remain,” the memo said.

Only one of the three trees could potentially be saved under an alternate scenario, the staffers said, though the project team had “revisited the design and construction program to see if [saving all] could be achieved while at the same time maintaining the schedule for the school project and preserving the various program and infrastructure elements associated with the project.”

The trees cannot be moved and transplanted, according to the memo.

The city plans to remove 94 of 129 existing trees on the site, or 73 percent, while planting 374. Residents who have rallied to save the oaks note that newly planted trees often fail, but the city has an optimistic vision that by 2030 the Tobin and Vassal tree canopy it plans will cover 16 percent of the campus, as compared with the 18 percent it says is covered now. By 2040, there will be 22 percent coverage; when the newly planted trees reach maturity – the memo does not say when that is expected – they will offer 47 percent coverage, compared with the 26 percent expected of the current plantings at maturity sometime after 2041.

“It is necessary to proceed with the existing design, which has been thoroughly reviewed with the school and neighborhood communities,” City Manager Louis A. DePasquale told councillors in a letter Thursday.

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