Thursday, June 25, 2015

A Reprieve for the Trees

The ancient sycamore tree on the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Cross Creek Road has won a reprieve, but it's going to be up to Malibu residents to keep pressure on the developer who proposed the plan to bulldoze the trees to find an alternative.

Hui-tse said to Chuang-tse, "I have a large tree which no carpenter can cut into lumber. Its branches and trunk are crooked and tough, covered with bumps and depressions. No builder would turn his head to look at it..."

Chuange-tse replied, "You complain that your tree is not valuable as lumber, but you could make use of the shade it provides, rest under its sheltering branches, and stroll beneath it, admiring its character and appearance. Since it would not be endangered by an axe, what could threaten its existence? It is useless to you only because you want to make it into something else and do not use it in its proper way.”
—Taoist parable, interpreted by Benjamin Hoff

On June 15, the City of Malibu's Planning Commission voted unanimously to give the embattled Cross Creek sycamore and five eucalyptus trees a reprieve, sending the developers of the La Paz shopping center back to the drawing board and the negotiating table to come up with an alternative to bulldozing the trees.

The PCH road widening proposal is part of the traffic mitigation required for the La Paz mall. The applicant, who sought to widen PCH on the ocean side of the highway to accommodate a turn lane on the land side for the 112,000-square foot La Paz development, was denied permission to remove the trees. At this point, the trees cannot legally be touched without an amendment from the city.

Malibu activists from all walks of life and all ends of the political spectrum joined together for a rally in front of the sycamore tree before the meeting. They waved signs, covered the trees slated for destruction with paper hearts and messages, and shared their concerns with each other and with the afternoon peak-hour traffic.

Many of the protestors headed straight to Malibu City Hall after the rally, for the standing-room-only meeting where the fate of the trees would be determined.

Activists gather on PCH to protest plans to bulldoze the sycamore and five eucalyptus trees the afternoon before the June 15 City of Malibu Planning Commission meeting. The people protesting were there because they care deeply about the community. They care about these trees. There were people at this rally who have been on opposite sides of other issues and opposite ends of Malibu's political spectrum. They put aside differences to support this cause together. That's an important message and one that developers and anyone who seeks to change the character of this community needs to hear. 

The trees weren't the only concern at the meeting. Many speakers raised questions about the potential impact of the road widening on the free Surfrider Beach parking under the eucalyptus trees, and the much-used trail that provides safe transit along PCH to the entrance of Malibu Lagoon State Beach.

The planning commission heard over three hours of testimony. It’s not surprising that the only people in favor of bulldozing the sycamore and the row of eucalyptus trees on PCH to build a bigger turn lane to accommodate the La Paz shopping center traffic were paid consultants and a couple of pro-development activists, the ones who never miss an opportunity to promote their agenda, but are at least our resident pro-development activists, and not nameless, faceless suits from corporate headquarters. 

Here's a schematic of the changes to the parking and beach accessway under the eucalyptus trees that the developer seeks to remove. Questions were raised over whether the applicant presented the final plan to State Parks and the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and how much the free public parking and trail would actually be impacted by the project—beach access is a Coastal Act and California Environmental Quality Act issue. 

This is another image from the applicant's presentation. The applicant's representative assured the planning commission that no parking will be lost, but the exhibit provided by the applicant indicates an impact on at least six parallel spaces. Critics pointed out that, even if there is still room to park parallel, head-in and double parking is the norm on big surf days, and the changes will impact beach access, since pedestrians will apparently have less space to safely walk to the beach.

This is the area shown in the first photo on the La Paz exhibit, above, which is marked  "no parking observed, no impact from project." The cars shown are parked double, all the way to the edge of Malibu Road. Another example of how project proponents sometimes seem to live in a different reality from residents.

One speaker pointed out that the beach access trail shown here is on State Parks land and is ESHA—environmentally sensitive habitat area that is protected by the Coastal Act and the California Environmental Quality Act. 

In addition to being one of the most popular state beaches in Southern California, Surfrider Beach was designated the first World Surfing Reserve in 2010. This was what the surf looked like on the day the Malibu Post photographed the previous photo of the surfer walking back to his car, and this is why he, and hundreds of other visitors, were at the beach. A number of speakers at the planning commission hearing questioned why this road widening project impacts the side of the road that is important to the public and is on State Park property, instead of the side where the turn lane is actually needed.

What was surprising was the fact that the Caltrans representative, a senior planner who is paid nearly $103,000 a year plus a $42k benefits package, according to the Transparent California website,  could only justify the removal of the trees on the basis that they are a potential safety hazard because somebody someday may crash into one and die, despite the fact that none of these trees have even been the cause of any major traffic accident in the 86-year history of PCH, as far as the Malibu Post’s research has been able to determine. 

Here's the assessment of the Cross Creek and PCH intersection in a presentation prepared by the city's consultants for the brand new Pacific Coast Highway Safety Study. There doesn't seem to be anything about killer trees.

“It’s a couple of feet, can’t you do something?” Planning Commission Chair David Brotman asked the Caltrans representative.

“If I’m being honest, maybe in the future, someone will come to me and say ‘why didn’t you just add those two feet and save my daughter or save my son?’” the Caltrans spokesperson replied. 

That’s it? That's the big argument for removing a historic tree that has grown in its current location since before Pacific Coast Highway was built?

Why wasn’t this highly paid expert advocating for the removal of power poles, fire hydrants, too? Unlike these trees, power poles and fire hydrants have been a significant factor in numerous fatalities and serious accidents on PCH. 

No one is saying that PCH isn't dangerous, or that accidents aren't a frequent issue, but there is no evidence to support the contention that the trees are a traffic hazard.

This map indicates serious accidents from 2010-2012. The pink dot by the notation "Civic Center Way" indicates one pedestrian accident. There is no evidence that anyone has ever struck one of the trees in question during the entire history of Pacific Coast Highway. The fact that the Cross Creek bridge, rebuilt in 1995 to the 90-foot-width of the original span, cannot be widened adds another element of lunacy to the safety argument. Widening the road to 100 feet at the tree and back to 90 feet at the bridge a few feet down the road seems half-baked at best, and highlights the fact that this is about accommodating development, not safety.

This graphic shows fatal collisions, indicated by the yellow dots. There are absolutely no fatalities at the intersection of Cross Creek and PCH. The changes to the intersection proposed by the La Paz developers are required to accommodate the increase in car trips for the new 112,000-square-foot mall, not to save helpless humanity from the danger of trees.

If the main argument for removing the trees is to protect us from ourselves at some unspecified time in the future at an intersection with a low rate of injury accidents, maybe we should just wrap the entire 27 mile stretch of PCH in bubblewrap.

Several speakers questioned why the developers focused on removing the trees, which are on State Parks property, instead of seeking to expand the road on the side of the highway with the gas station, where the traffic already queues up to turn into the Civic Center area. Unlike the trees, light poles, like the one shown here in the middle of the sidewalk, have been involved in numerous traffic accidents.

The spokesperson for the La Paz project took the rhetoric one step further. “We’re talking about the tragedy of the tree, what about the tragedy of the people who are dying?” he said.

The people who are dying at the corner of PCH and Cross Creek Road? Really? 

PCH was built in the late 1920s and only reengineered once, in 1949. Very little of it is up to the ever-evolving 21st century Caltrans standards, and many areas have major safety issues. The Cross Creek intersection isn’t one of these. It experiences severe congestion, not fatalities or even serious injury accidents. 

This traffic measure was proposed as a congestion measure, not a safety measure. The developer is required to include the turn lane to accommodate an increase in car trips not to save us from the horrible threat of trees. 

This sign summed up the mood of the evening, as many protest participants expressed dismay at the huge—in number and size—commercial projects currently underway in the Civic Center.

When did this pearl-clutching oh-the-humanity argument enter the conversation? Those same hypothetical children that will be killed by the trees could be injured in a Little League game or on the playground of their grade school. Should we also ban sports and kindergarten because an accident could happen? 

The applicant's representative stated that he tried to work with Caltrans to find another solution but was unsuccessful.

It’s hard to believe that anyone who would write off this massive, ancient sycamore that has two 12-foo-diameter trunks as a “41-inch tree” put a lot of effort into plans to save it, but perhaps they just didn't talk to the right people at Caltrans. 

While it's true that for decades Caltrans was as remote and inaccessible as the moon, that’s changed in recent years. The agency was responsive to safety concerns following the death of 13-year-old Emily Shane in 2010. The agency is actively working with National Parks and conservation agencies to build a wildlife overpass at Liberty Canyon on the 101. 

For many, the sycamore has become a symbol of the real Malibu.

Caltrans is also beginning to entertain the idea of new approaches to traffic flow, including measures like narrower lanes to encourage drivers to slow down, a traffic calming measure that is one of the proposals floated for western Malibu in the city's new Pacific Coast Highway safety study.

In recent years, Caltrans has repeatedly exhibited willingness in other communities to work around landmarks and sensitive areas. Why can’t they do that here in Malibu? 

Protesters gather under what the Environmental Impact Report for the road widening project described as "a 41-inch tree." The tree, which has two main trunks, both with a diameter of 41-inches and a circumference of almost 12 feet each, stands 55 feet tall and is estimated to be at least 160 years old.

Now that the community and the city officials have made it clear that saving the trees is a priority, we can hope the developers will make a stronger effort, but it is up to the community to keep them on track.

This project’s representative is a Malibu area resident, but the investors aren’t. They are a collection of mostly out of state corporate interests whose priority appears to be securing the permits for the property and selling it, presumably to other vast, impersonal out-of-state investors. It's unlikely that any of these people follow local Malibu news closely. 

According to the website  Corporation Wiki, Malibu La Paz Ranch, LLC, is headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, and is comprised of hedge funds and investment interests.

These three protesters are dwarfed by the massive twin trunks of the PCH sycamore they are seeking to save from the bulldozers.

The owner of "The Park at Cross Creek, LLC" development (the LLC for the project apparently no longer has "Whole Foods" in its title), which is located next door to the La Paz property and also dependent on the PCH widening project, is even more vast and faceless. Rumor has it, the majority controlling interest in this property belongs to Fortress Investment Group, LLC,  "a leading, highly diversified global investment management firm," according to their website.

It stretches one's suspension of disbelief to the breaking point to image that hedge funds care one iota about trees, or, for that matter, people. 

However, even the largest corporation is run by humans, not by computers, not yet at least. Perhaps now that they have been made aware of how much these trees mean to the community, whoever runs the show at Malibu LaPaz Ranch LLC will be willing to put some effort into finding a solution everyone can live with. It’s in their interests to appear responsive to the needs of the community.  It would be a good legacy, a better one than giving the impression of being the Evil Empire [TM].

Malibu's Measure R, which requires voter approval for large commercial development projects and limits chain stores, passed last November because a vast majority of Malibu residents feel overwhelmed by the seemingly unstoppable onslaught of development that includes the Crummer subdivision, the Edge subdivision, the La Paz shopping center, The Park at Cross Creek shopping center, the Malibu Bay Company's Sycamore Farms shopping center, and the Santa Monica City College Satellite campus. More than a quarter of a million square feet of development—the equivalent of building a new 20-square-foot room for every man woman and child in the City of Malibu. 
Image: 20th Century Fox

“I think the city is getting very close to a breach of the development agreement,” the La Paz representative said at the planning meeting. It didn't have quite the campy panache of Darth Vader's "Tear this ship apart and bring me the ambassador, I want her alive," but for many in the audience it came out sounding like that, whether or not the speaker intended it to. 

“I appreciate that you’ve spent four years [on this plan], we’ve spent four hours, so you’re going to need to give us a little more time,” Commissioner Mikke Pierson replied. The commission deliberated at length before voting unanimously to oppose the removal of the trees. They requested that that applicant return with a solution that spares the trees and the parking.

The Planning Commission's  unanimous decision provides an opportunity for everyone to work together to find a viable solution, one that preserves the trees and the character of the community, instead of the corporate interest of a collection of out-of-state hedge funds.

The view from the Pepperdine University campus revels how the trees are an important aspect of the Malibu landscape, and also how they form a significant barrier between the state park and the commercial development opposite it. It's a reminder that the trees are on State Parks property, not private property. That gives everyone, city officials, Malibu residents, beachgoers, and even—if an appeal is ultimately required to resolve the issue—the Coastal Commission, the right and the responsibility to weigh in on the issue. Changing PCH has a major longterm impact on everyone who uses the coastal route and the public beach that is key state resource.

Longtime Malibu resident and local architect Lester Tobias had this to say about the sycamore at the planning commission meeting:

"This sycamore was a seedling when our nation fought the civil war. It was not planted. It found its way to the creek's end and began its life. It hasn't killed anybody. It hasn't caused any accidents. It is not a fire hazard. It is innocent. It saw Malibu grow up. It saw the great depression, prohibition, and two world wars. It saw May Rindge fight the government. It saw the Malibu pottery tiles being made. It saw Alan Sarlo shoot the pier on big Wednesday last year...It has survived fires, floods, channel dredging, bridge building, and the original Malibu Little League fields. It is Malibu's witness tree. Although it is owned by no one, it resides on State Park property. This makes it the People's Tree. And since it resides in Malibu, it is Malibu's tree. And you are Malibu's Planning Commission and I can not see how any of you can vote to kill our tree, our witness tree, Malibu's tree, so some guy can build an office building."

Amen to that.

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