Palo Alto's Public Works Department staff blundered when it cut down 63 holly oaks on California Avenue -- more than the "about 50" initially estimated -- last week without first notifying the neighborhood, City Manager James Keene acknowledged Monday night.
The tree-replacement project, which has been in the planning stages since 2005, angered residents and shoppers at California Avenue, many of whom were shocked to see city crews take down trees on three commercial blocks last week.
Several residents showed up at the City Council meeting Monday night to vent their frustrations and ask how it was possible for a notoriously green city such as Palo Alto to take down dozens of trees with virtually no warning.
Several members of the council voiced similar frustrations.
Councilman Sid Espinosa asked Keene what the reprimand would be for those who made the decision to take down the trees and said he wants to make sure that similar blunders don't happen again.
Vice Mayor Jack Morton received a round of applause from the audience when he said he wants to understand "how in Palo Alto we can clearcut three contiguous blocks of trees without any of us in the community understanding the impacts."
"I want a process in which 63 trees can never be cut down without us having a chance to say, 'This is not how we want California Avenue to look for the next 15 years,'" Morton said.
Keene, who was also caught off-guard by the sudden tree removal, apologized to the council and the residents for the inadequate public outreach and pledged to provide more information to the community about future beautification efforts on California Avenue.
He recapped the history of the streetscape project, which was originally requested by the California Avenue Area Development Association (CAADA) in 2005. The project was designed with community input and was ultimately endorsed by CAADA, Canopy, the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce and other stakeholders in the busy business district.
The project initially included streetlight replacement and upgraded benches, newsracks and other improvements. Many of these features were subsequently eliminated because of funding shortages.
But while the design process included extensive outreach, the implementation of the plan was hasty and insufficiently publicized, Keene said. In January, CAADA recommended replacing the trees all at once so that the new trees can all grow together.
CAADA President Ronna Devincenzi told the council that the old trees had to be removed because they were damaged and diseased.
Keene said staff discussed the outreach plan at a Sept. 9 meeting with CAADA, but the city's project engineer authorized the project before the outreach plan could be implemented. Keene said he directed staff to work with Canopy and other stakeholders on deciding how next to proceed with the tree-replacement project.
"I do apologize to the council and the community for an implementation that didn't match the effort on the design," Keene told the council.
Keene's statements placated some of the critics, a few of whom complained Monday that removal of the trees badly scarred the California Avenue district. Dozens of city residents had vented their outrage in e-mails and postings on Town Square, Palo Alto Online's community forum.
Area resident Todd Burke told the council Monday that he was out of town when the trees were taken down. He said he was shocked by what he saw when he returned.
"I came home to a completely barren, desolate street," Burke said. "It was quite mind-boggling."
But Burke said he was surprised by Keene's "falling on (his) sword" and thanked him for his candid response.
Nancy Moss, who also lives in the neighborhood, said she's been shopping in the business district for the past 36 years and never heard a word from the city about the tree removal. Like other speakers, she said she was encouraged by Keene's comments Monday and encouraged city officials to come up with creative ways to notify the community about major changes to the streets.
"I'm happy to hear that new measures are being considered and I very much would like to be part of the process," Moss said.
Keene said there would be a variety of trees planted along the street, and for about $20,000 some could be larger than initially planned.