A major tree-removal project in California Avenue's business district caught both City Manager James Keene and the City Council by surprise, officials have acknowledged.
Shopkeepers, residents and city officials became alarmed when 50 Holly oak trees lining the shopping district were removed this week by a contractor.
Residents and many store owners were outraged, saying they were not notified of the tree removal.
But other city officials, including some council members, recalled that the project is part of an overall "streetscape" project that has been in the works since at least 2005.
That didn't sit well with several city officials, who said such a drastic plan was never envisioned and they should have been notified before the chainsaws were started.
Earlier versions of the plan reportedly included a phased replacement of the trees to lessen the visual impact, but someplace along the line someone made a policy decision to do all the trees at once. Council members and others want to know how this happened.
A vigorous debate has emerged on the Town Square forum of the Weekly's community website, www.PaloAltoOnline.com.
The city plans to replace the trees with red maples about 10 feet tall, but reactions along the street are mixed, with some calling the action an uglification plan instead of a beautification plan.
One commenter on Town Square termed it a "clearcutting."
Keene said he is unhappy with how the project was handled in terms of how it was communicated to people, while council members want to know how the plan was developed and why they weren't informed in advance.
Keene had a staff meeting on Sept. 16 to look into why the trees were cut down, he wrote in response to a resident's angry letter to the council.
City Councilman Larry Klein told the Weekly council members were not told of the plan to remove all trees.
"It was a total surprise to me I don't think it's been on the City Council agenda for a few years. Jim Keene was totally surprised. No one told him," he said.
Plans to remove the trees were part of a California Avenue "streetscaping" plan that included street lights, reducing the number of traffic lanes, adding bike lanes, making crosswalk improvements and adding new benches and trash receptacles -- and a new fountain.
The plans were approved by the Palo Alto City Council in 2007 as part of the 2007-2009 Capital Improvement budget, according to city documents.
"My recollection was it was absolutely uncontroversial. Clearly, there should have been a lot more outreach, communication and notices sent," Klein said.
The entire project was estimated to cost $335,000, according to documents. The city had appropriated $50,000 for the projectin previous years and the remaining balance was proposed in the 2007-08 plan, according to the budget report.
Funding was to come from the city's general fund and the California Avenue Area Development Association (CAADA), with additional funding from street-maintenance and street-light-improvement budgets.
Despite the paper record, city officials expressed concern at the lack of communication from the Public Works Department that all of the trees would be replaced at one time.
Councilman Pat Burt was the liaison between the city and CAADA, the area's business association, from January 2008 to May 2009, according to Ronna Devincenzi, CAADA president.
But Burt said he was not informed of the wholesale removal.
"I have many of the same questions," he said when asked about the clearcutting by the Weekly. "I was not informed," he said. He is looking into what happened.
But Councilwoman Yoriko Kishimoto, a former liaison to CAADA, said she sat in on past discussions on the beautification plan.
"The overall street-landscape plan was in the works for a long time," Kishimoto said, adding that there were many meetings and no one should have been surprised.
"The part that seems to have fallen between the cracks is the details of how to make the transition. Do we keep the trees in while replacing them? That discussion didn't get to the top management or the council," she said.
The same dilemma arose when trees along San Antonio Road were planned for removal, she said.
"When that proposal came around I paid attention. I asked 'Do we have to take down all of the beautiful Italian stone pine trees?' The answer was yes, that we did. Hopefully that was worth the sacrifice (of a few years)," she said.
San Antonio Road was an example where the city did the process right, she said.
"Obviously, we should've put much more thought and process into California Avenue. I would have to say it slipped by the council. ... We should have gotten an update of the final landscape plan and a review of these sensitive issues," she said.
But staff did not have bad intentions, Kishimoto said.
"Staff thought they had community consensus. (But) we could've used help from the city manager's office in managing (this issue) to make sure the council was made aware," she said.
Still unclear is whether the plan was ever approved by the Architectural Review Board (ARB).
Kishimoto said she is "very sure" that it did reach the ARB. At least one anonymous staff member said it was reviewed at a staff-level ARB meeting because it was not new but replaced existing trees, benches and other fixtures.
Judith Wasserman, an ARB member, recalled at some point that the plan had been on the agenda at least twice but was taken off.
Shwe said perhaps parts of it were given over to different departments: the trees to be handled by the public works arborist and the street repairs to public works.
"I wish we had a chance to look at it before it went through," she said.
The city has added a web page with project information at wwww.cityofpaloalto.org. Residents can scroll down the home page to "Planned California Avenue Streetscape Improvements Now Underway."
The city will also continue adding additional information to the site next week, according to Kate Rooney, project manager of the public works engineering department.
A letter is also being drafted to explain the project and will be sent to residents, she said.