Saving trees, starting construction aren’t in conflict says tree advocate

One of the top tree advocates in Boston said the battle to save more trees within the Bunker Hill Redevelopment plan is not an effort that actually pits those wanting to save trees against those wanting to move on with construction of the long-standing mixed-income development.

In fact, with good design, David Meshoulam of Speak for the Trees said many trees could be saved and the project could go forward. His comments came as petitions online with Change.org approached 1,000 signatures for the reconsideration of the current development plan that calls for taking down more than 200 trees during the course of the project – though some of those trees have been identified as in bad health by the developer.

“Our stand at Speak for the Trees has always been that we care about trees because trees care for us and that by planting and protecting trees we are caring for each other,” he said. “I’m not sure what the right balance is in this case, but feel strongly that the current design, as it stands now, is certainly not balanced.

“I understand the perceived conflict here between development and trees,” he continued. “But I think it’s a perceived conflict, not a real one. There are ways to work a design that takes these trees into account.”

Speak for the Trees has been involved in Charlestown for about two years, as it is one of the least forested neighborhoods in the City. Meshoulam and the organization have been working with residents to catalog street trees in Charlestown and to focus some efforts in Barry Field to potentially get some new tree cover there.

The tree issues at Bunker Hill have been on his radar, he said, and he noted that many members of the community that are concerned about the tree canopy – and participated in his organization’s efforts – feel that not enough has been done.

He said the initial survey of trees by the developer came in at 200 trees on the site, but a later survey prompted by community comment showed there were 340 trees on the site. Right now, he said, it’s proposed to save 87 of the existing mature trees. He said development with mature trees in mind – at the beginning planning stages – could have saved many more, though probably not all of them.

“The last count I saw was that only 80 of the 340 trees would remain, and that’s over 75 percent of the trees being removed,” he wrote. “Whether or not you think all of the mature trees should be saved – a position I have not yet decided on myself – I hope you can share in my concern when so many trees are slated for removal. If the developer had done their due diligence six years ago with an inventory and seen the trees for what they are – an asset and not a liability – then I believe they would have done a better job of designing their buildings around them and not through them.”

The petition put up by Change.org from four residents, including Liz Whiteley, Tess O’Brien, Johanna Hynes and Joanne Massaro, stressed that the removal of the trees within the Bunker Hill plan would constitute removing 10 percent of the trees in the Town, and it runs contrary to the City’s Climate Ready objectives.

“The removal of these mature trees runs counter to the City of Boston’s commitment to protect its existing tree canopy for the health and well-being of its residents. Charlestown is a tree desert, with one of the lowest tree canopies in the city,” read the petition. “The loss of these trees, many decades old and irreplaceable, would account for approximately 10 percent of Charlestown’s entire canopy – and their removal has real consequences.”

The discussion is not isolated the Charlestown, but has been a topic of consequence all over Boston. Just last month, Speak for the Trees and a group of long-active residents were able to stop a state and City transportation project on Melnea Cass Boulevard and get the City to commit to re-starting that process. The issue there was the removal of more than 250 trees that had been planted in the 1970s after a proposed siting of a highway there was defeated.

That project was years in the making, the design had been completed, a contractor had been procured by MassDOT and construction was ready to begin this spring. However, after several protests last fall, the City committed to thinking more about it as an equity issue. Then, City officials issued a letter in January committing to a re-start that brought the community to the table to create a new design that would not eliminate the trees.

Meshoulam said the momentum there has spilled into the Bunker Hill debate for him, as this is also a situation where low-income residents are losing a healthy resource – that being trees.

The tree issues were brought up last week at a Boston Civic Design Commission (BCDC) meeting, which focused mostly on revised designs of the two buildings in Phase 1. Meanwhile, some members did address the tree issues, and said they were important. Member Mikyoung Kim said she wasn’t necessarily advocating for the trees to take precedence over the development, but at the same time wanted more thought given to how the design could save more trees.

She asked for a public meeting outside of the BCDC process to be held very soon, and that is now being scheduled with the developer and the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA).

For Meshoulam, he said he believes it can be done – that affordable housing and trees are not an either/or proposition.

“I am not saying this because I’m a tree-hugger or because I’m concerned about urban density,” he said. “No, in fact, I care about this issue because I care about the well-being of the residents who will live in this new housing. These mature trees will make the future housing more livable. Especially for a community abutting a highway, these trees remove pollutants; for a community in the middle of a heat island, these trees cool the air…I’m convinced that there’s a better way forward that allows for affordable housing with mature trees.”

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