Historic Preservation can Pit Old Buildings vs. Mature Trees

A mature beech tree was felled to make room for the relocation of the historic Sharpe House, right, from Angell Street to Brown Street in Providence. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

A mature beech tree was felled to make room for the relocation of the historic Sharpe House, right, from Angell Street to Brown Street in Providence. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The community cheered when historic buildings were saved from demolition, but lost in the celebration was the cost: an old-growth beech tree.

In late spring, the Corporation, Brown University’s highest governing body, approved a new site for a proposed performing arts center, between Angell and Olive streets, following opposition, from university students and faculty, local residents and the Providence Preservation Society, to the project’s initial location.

The original site, on a plot between Angell and Waterman streets, required the razing and/or moving of five buildings, including the Urban Environmental Lab at 135 Angell St. The new location, which Brown initially rejected as being too small, required the relocation of just one building, the Sharpe House, built circa 1873, from Angell Street to Brown Street. The Sharpe House now sits next to the Peter Green House, which the university moved a decade ago 450 feet to the corner of Brown and Angell streets. (If you click the Peter Green House link, the since-taken-down beech tree can be seen in the right edge of the photo.)

Missing from the Sharpe and Green houses’ new neighborhood is a historic beech tree that was more than a century old when it was cut down earlier this year.

Brown University has been commended for withdrawing its original proposal, but the fate of one of Providence’s declining number of mature trees was never considered, despite the fact a local ordinance exists that was adopted to protect the city’s dwindling collection of historic trees. The ordinance was adopted after another old-growth beech tree on the East Side was cut down several years ago to make room for more parking at a medical facility.

Ray Rickman, a longtime resident of the city’s East Side who lives off Brown Street, was one of the local residents who opposed the university’s original plan to demolish or move the five historic buildings. He recently told ecoRI News he didn’t immediately know that the new plan included the axing of the neighborhood’s beloved beech tree. By the time he found out, it was too late to stop the chainsaws.

“Everybody got convinced that this house was more important than the tree,” he said. “The tree got lost when people decided the house was more important. Historic houses have more champions than old-growth trees.”

The former state representative said that the protection of the city’s old-growth trees is secondary to historical buildings. He doesn’t believe that should be the case, noting that he plans on working to strengthen the city ordinance that protects mature trees.

“People go, ‘Wow,’ when you have a 100-year-old tree in your yard,” said Rickman, who has a century-old chestnut tree on his property. “But there’s very few of these trees still standing. We’re diminishing the value of properties. We need more trees like that. These trees deserve protection.”

ecoRI News reached out to city forester Doug Still to talk about the recently felled beech tree in particular and old-growth tree management in general, but we were told by the city’s director of communications to e-mail her deputy director of communications our questions. Here is that exchange:

Question: Much was made of the saving of the historic Sharpe House by moving it, but its relocation came at the expense of an old-growth beech tree. How does that trade-off mesh with a city ordinance designed to protect the city’s dwindling collection of historic trees?

Answer: The removal of “significant trees” — defined as a tree 32 (inches) or greater in diameter — is prohibited without permission from the city forester; and then only if certain criteria are met: if the tree is diseased, poses a safety hazard, or prevents the property from being developed in accordance with the zoning ordinance and there are no alternatives to removal of the tree. This zoning regulation has created a thoughtful process for land owners and tree companies who seek to remove large trees, and has prevented the indiscriminate removal of dozens of significant trees since its inception in 2004.

Q: Did the city have any concerns about that tree, which at one time anchored a small park, being taken down?

A: A tree that size benefits the community due to its capacity to provide valuable environmental services, such as reducing local temperatures in summer; cleaning the air; intercepting or slowing storm water before it reaches the sewer system, rivers, and Narragansett Bay; reducing energy use for cooling in summer and heating in winter; storing carbon; providing a home for wildlife; and other functions. However, the regulation notes that the opinion of the city forester must be objective in assessing the interests of city residents in addition to those of the property owner when considering the removal of a significant tree.

Q: How does the city decide which historic/old-growth trees need to be protected and which ones don’t?

A: One criteria included in the zoning ordinance states that approval for removal is given if “The tree prevents the property owner from developing the property in conformance with this ordinance, and there are no alternatives to removal of the tree.” This was the case at Brown University, which held many public meetings regarding the location of the performing arts center and alternative sites and their pros and cons had been considered extensively. The university has pledged extensive resources to plant 250 new trees nearby, as well as funding to plant trees in neighborhood parks throughout the city. They were not required to do so, but recognized the importance of the beech tree and its loss.

Q: How does the city view historic homes and historic trees in terms of their protection needs?

A: Regarding trees vs. buildings, ideally we want to preserve both, and we work with developers to explore all options. In the end, we can’t legally deprive property owners from developing their property. Courts have ruled that denying demolition of a building in a historic district does not infringe on property rights. However, the city would not be able to defend its decision to deny removal of a significant tree if there was no other way to develop the property to its potential without the removal of the tree.

Community benefits
Besides improving property values, trees, especially mature ones, help lessen the impacts of climate change, help protect against flooding, and help filter stormwater runoff.

According to a 2014 study of Providence’s urban forest, the city’s 415,000 or so trees annually remove 91 tons of pollution, sequester 4,030 tons of carbon, and eliminate 31 million gallons of runoff. These services provide an environmental benefit of $4.7 million annually, according to Providence’s Urban Forests: Structure, Effects and Values.

In fact, numerous studies suggest that urban trees and green space improve public health, as trees clean the air, cool neighborhoods, and improve air and water quality. The city’s most recent comprehensive plan highlights the importance of trees.

Providence’s total tree cover is about 23 percent.