On Friday, a contractor commissioned by the city began planting 150 trees around downtown, fulfilling a pledge made – and broken – by the now-defunct organization behind last summer's Grand Prix auto race.
Baltimore Racing Development had agreed to plant a total of 198 trees downtown by last fall, after a public furor erupted over trees the city had permitted the group to cut down or move in the Inner Harbor to make way for the three-day event.
But after the financially troubled racing group missed its last tree-planting deadline in November, city officials decided to go ahead with putting the trees in this spring — at taxpayer expense, if necessary. That's how it's turned out, because the city severed ties with the debt-swamped racing group in late December after it failed to pay $1.5 million in taxes and fees owed.
Last month, the Board of Estimates approved a contract for about 970 trees to be planted on streets throughout the city. Most of those are for the city's annual tree-planting program, but 150 are earmarked to go in spots downtown that the racing group had agreed to fill. The race-related portion of the $268,000 tree contract came to $41,500, according to Erik Dihle, the city's arborist.
The cost is less than half the $100,000 that had been predicted several months ago by Beth Strommen, director of the city's Office of Sustainability. Part of that is because the city got a break for ordering so many trees together, she explained in an email. But the cost is lower also because the city isn't planting all the flowers called for in the agreement, or quite as many trees.
The race group had pledged to put 59 back in the Inner Harbor and plant another 139 around downtown to replace dead or dying trees.
But the organizers took out only 32 Inner Harbor trees, fewer than expected, explained Strommen. And some of the plantings called for in the agreement are still on hold, she said, including six saplings supposed to be replaced on Pratt Street in front of the Convention Center.
"They were not included this planting season until the details of the next race are worked out," Strommen said. Noting that bleachers were located there for the first race, she added, "It would be kind of silly to plant the trees in the ground now and then have to remove them immediately for the race."
The planting came as news to David Troy, a Bolton Hill software developer who launched a petition drive and filed a lawsuit last summer in an unsuccessful bid to block the race-related tree removals. Besides arguing that trees shouldn't be sacrificed for the race, Troy had voiced doubts that the racing group would live up to its promise to replace them.
"The thing that everybody was also annoyed about and afraid of was that taxpayers were going to end up footing the bill for this," he said, "and that's exactly what has happened."
Still, Troy said he was pleased that trees are being planted downtown.
"Obviously, that's a good thing for the city," he said. "Whatever their motivation, I'm glad they're doing it."
Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, also expressed relief that the trees are finally being planted.
"We were under the impression that this work would have been done by the Grand Prix team in September or October," Fowler said, "but we're glad the city has stepped forward."
The business group had grown so anxious to get some green back on Pratt Street that a month ago it planted 14 small crape myrtles of its own in concrete planters that had sat empty for months by the federal courthouse. City officials say they're planning to award a separate contract to put larger trees in them.
"They're temporary," Fowler said, "but we just wanted to get something good-looking in those pots for the start of tourism season and the Orioles [games]."
Strommen said city officials still hope the cost of the tree plantings might be reimbursed by the Grand Prix's new organizers. It's not clear, though, that the race is going forward this year. The new group has missed several key deadlines.