Group fights to stop tree removal at Mount Vernon Place

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Advocates are fighting plans to replace the mature trees in Mount Vernon Square.

With their miniature French poodle, Marcel, in tow, Thomas and Joan Spence start each morning in Mount Vernon Place, walking past the magnolias and cherry trees and Japanese maples, along the sidewalks and around the footprint of the Washington Monument.

The couple, transplants from New York who chose to settle in Baltimore for their golden years, say they're lucky to live near the city landmark and eager for its restoration. But they can't abide one aspect of the plan: removing more than 100 mature trees and replacing them with younger transplanted ones as part of a broader $14.5 million privately funded restoration plan.


"We should treasure mature, healthy trees," Joan Spence said. "Why would anyone want to spend money getting rid of healthy trees to pay — and quite a lot — for new trees? It doesn't make sense."

The Spences helped to create the Save the Trees Alliance and circulate a petition to oppose that aspect of the plan by the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy, a nonprofit charged with the upkeep of the monument and surrounding cruciform square. They say they have gathered more than 2,000 signatures.


The conservancy contends that an arborist's review shows that all the trees display signs of stress and that a portion are dying — about 20 percent aren't expect to live more than a dozen more years. The only tree that would remain is the large elm in the east square. Moreover, the group says, tree roots regularly clog pipes feeding the park's fountains and create drainage problems in the area.

Lance Humphries, chairman of the conservancy restoration committee, said removing the trees may be "a hard thing for people to wrap their mind around" but is a necessary step. The soil in the squares is missing rich organic material that helps plant life thrive, and new irrigation needs to be added, according to the conservancy.

"The goal of the conservancy, since its inception, is for Mount Vernon Place to become a world-class destination, something that people see in photographs that is so spectacular that they can't leave the city without seeing it," Humphries said.

The dilemma facing Mount Vernon Place isn't the first time the aging city has grappled with getting rid of older trees. In 2008, the city removed 165 trees, mostly Bradford pears, along Charles Street. Although residents liked the white blooms in the spring and vibrant oranges and reds in the fall, the trees became brittle and unstable with age.

The city's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation gave the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy "conceptual" approval in 2011 for its plan to revitalize the monument and squares, an undertaking that includes repairs to the stone balustrades along the sidewalks, restoration of fountain masonry and handicap-accessibility upgrades.

The 100-page master plan was developed by the landscape architectural firm Olin. Thomas Liebel, the commission's chairman, said the plan incorporates the most current urban design theories.

The Save the Trees Alliance, a loosely formed group of about 10 activists, has presented alternative solutions for the restoration, including recommendations by a former chief arborist for the city who said the majority of the trees could thrive if they are given nutrients, regularly pruned and offered protection from pests.

Liebel said the conservancy is authorized to select either the north or south square — which have the fewest mature trees — to test their design plans. But before renovation efforts could begin on any of the squares, the conservancy would need further approvals from the commission, he said. The vetting process is conducted in public hearings.


"Everyone is welcome to attend and testify," Liebel said. "I don't want the perception to be this is a foregone conclusion, that the public hearings are a facade. ... There is a great deal of passionate debate."

Humphries said the conservancy doesn't have a timeline set for the restoration of the squares.

He said the group's focus now has been on the $5 million restoration of the monument, which was closed for public tours about three years ago. The pillar will be ensconced in scaffolding come January and is expected to open for the structure's bicentennial on July 4, 2015.

The conservancy has raised only enough money for the repairs to the monument.

The overall plan, including the provision to remove the mature trees, has garnered the support of civic and business groups, such as the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association, Charles Street Development Corp., and Downtown Partnership.

"The entire plan isn't just about trees," said Jason Curtis, president of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association. "It's about public safety, disabled access, electrical upgrades, updated balustrades, the whole irrigation and water collection system, using soils to help with the runoff of water going into the harbor.


"It's impossible to separate out one piece and achieve full sustainability."

Mount Vernon Place draws throngs of residents and hosts the First Thursday concert series and FlowerMart in the spring and summer and the annual monument lighting around Christmastime.

The conservancy plans to select native trees, when possible, and species that are tolerant of urban environments when it replaces the older trees. The final design features a formal French layout, which the conservancy says reinforces the original Carrere and Hastings design from the early 20th century.

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Joan Spence, however, said the new design strays from the original layout. She said the famed urban architect Thomas Hastings used an "American Baroque" style marked by irregular patterns.

Spence said the alliance wants to prove that removing the trees isn't the only solution. The alliance is working to rebut the findings in the Olin master plan. For instance, the alliance also got an analysis from a local mining company that concluded that the soil isn't as infertile as the conservancy believes.

Spence said she's concerned that if the city abandons the existing trees and fails to maintain them, the conservancy's predictions will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.


The alliance wants the city's historic and preservation commission to force the conservancy to change course, Spence said. The mature trees offer more than a beautiful vista, the alliance says, providing a habitat and food for animals and purifying the air, water and soil.

"It's very peaceful there," Spence said. "Every time that I step out of our building and look at the west park and the architecture, I just feel so lucky to live here."