Friday, October 22, 2004

Respect Your Elders

If a tree falls in Central Gardens, does anybody give a damn?

Posted By on Fri, Oct 22, 2004 at 4:00 AM

By the time you read this, the largest oak in my neighborhood will be history. It stood for more than 100 years on the hill just down from E.H. Crump's former home on Peabody Avenue. The tree was visible from Cooper Street, more than two blocks away, where its mighty crown could be seen rising over the Midtown area hardest hit by last year's windstorm.

Fortunately, the oak was so big and healthy that it withstood the windstorm. Unfortunately for the oak, the lot was sold to local developer Ben Duke. Then the going got weird.

The corner lot is on the dividing line between two neighborhoods on the National Historic Register: Central Gardens and Idlewild. Two modest brick homes occupied the lot. They were torn down by a giant bulldozer over the course of two or three days, as children walked past on their way to Idlewild Elementary. Next, a dozen mature trees were demolished. Bewildered neighbors gathered on nearby Courtland Avenue, asking each other what was going on. No signs were posted to inform the public of the demolition.

In fact, the only nearby signs were one for the Idlewild National Historic District and a plaque describing Boss Crump's life and property. According to Central Gardens Neighborhood Association president Sharon Birch, the mighty tree that stood between these signs "fell through the cracks." It took plenty of effort by the bulldozer to make it fall, and a last-ditch attempt to save it turned out to be too little, too late.

In fact, some residents said the tree demolition was necessary for saving a historic home.

"This is a remarkable victory for the neighborhood," Birch says. The Central Gardens Neighborhood Association Web site touts the "dedicated preservationists" who are "proud to live on our tree-lined streets." Birch is proud that the lot being cleared will be the new resting place for another historic home that is to be moved from its current address next to Grace-St. Luke's Episcopal Church. Originally slated for demolition, the vacant house has been given to the developer by the church. The plan is to truck the brick, stone, and stained-glass building down Peabody Avenue and set it up beside the Crump house. The rest of the lot will then be subdivided so that a total of three homes will stand where before there were two.

"It's my opinion that this is a good in-fill development," says Birch. "We've been working on this for six months. It's so exciting!" When asked if she had shared her excitement with her counterparts at the Idlewild Neighborhood Association, Birch said she had not. When asked why the usual signage was not posted so that perhaps the two neighborhoods could have worked together to save both the tree and the "irreplaceable" house, Birch said no signs were required. The lot was originally intended for three homes, so, technically, the developer is not subdividing anything.

But how in the world was anyone supposed to know that a lot containing two houses was originally intended for three? The lot certainly appeared to be a two-house parcel.

"There was no way of knowing," says Rick Copeland of the city's Planning and Development Office. "Not unless you came downtown and looked at the plat on the map. We uphold the letter of the law."

Nancy Jane Baker of the Landmarks Commission agreed: The developer was not required to post a notice of planned development, as he had done on a nearby smaller lot that he recently subdivided.

Throughout the day, as the demolition crew prepared to fell the Boss Crump oak, phone calls to the developer went unreturned. Mary Baker of the Office of Planning and Development was confused. "I don't know why they [the Central Gardens Neighborhood Association] didn't notify anyone at the Idlewild Neighborhood Association. They should have contacted them. It was an oversight." She explained that an ordinance requiring builders to plant replacement trees would not apply in this case either, since the lot is smaller than the two-acre requirement for such action.

The Landmarks Commission did send out written notification to five addresses on Linden and Courtland streets. These addresses included several homes that were in the process of being sold. This reporter could find no one in the neighborhood who was notified.

Copeland says the city is currently rewriting codes and ordinances that may someday prevent such a thing from happening. "But it will take up to two years. Come to our future meetings and give us your input," he told me.

After the bulldozer pushed the giant oak to the ground, Scott Banbury, a local woodworker who salvages and mills fallen city trees, arrived at the scene. Banbury said the oak was very healthy, with no signs of rot, parasites, or fungus. "This would never have happened on the West Coast," he explained, citing protective tree ordinances there.

Demolition day in Central Gardens/Idlewild ended with the huge oak lying stretched across the scraped ground as the first drops of rain in more than a month sprinkled its dead body like so many futile tears.

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