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Removal of Old Growth Trees Underway at Eastern Market Plaza Park

A contractor for the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) Urban Foresters was busy Monday morning pruning dead branches off 11 trees in the Eastern Market Metro Park (EMMP) area. Workers were active in the playground Oct. 3, and had cordoned off some areas with caution tape –although the playground was not formally closed.

The larger task ahead of them will probably begin next week. Two weeks ago, the Urban Foresters made a final assessment that nine large old growth trees in the park, (four on Eastern Market Metro Plaza as well as five on the park and playground north of Pennsylvania Ave. SE) are dying.

They will be cut down and removed. The work is being expedited and the plan is for them to be completely removed by the end of October. All the trees designated for removal have an orange circle painted on them.

Plans Awry

The DC Dept of General Services (DGS) and the DC Dept of Parks and Recreation (DPR) began the planning process for these spaces over four years ago. At that time, were there about 140 old growth trees on the overall site.

Originally DGS had proposed removing all of them and incorporating planting of new trees into their landscaping design. There was significant pushback from the community on the removal of so many mature, established trees. Eventually, the plans were modified.

About half the existing trees were removed either because they were assessed to be in ill health, because they were situated in areas designated to be bio-retention areas (rain gardens) or for a variety of other reasons.  Roughly half of the mature trees were maintained. As part of the landscape design, a large number of new, young trees of various species were planted on the sites.

Just before construction began on the playground area in Spring 2020, all the old-growth trees were assessed and were generally given a clean bill of health. A plan was put in place to protect these trees during the period of construction.

More Trees To Go

It is hard to know with certainty how consistently this protection plan was followed. The fact that all construction of parcel one (the playground/park) was undertaken in the first year of the COVID pandemic was invariably a complicating factor. The work on Metro Plaza began several months later, also during COVID restrictions.

The primary intent here is not to cast blame. I do not know definitively why these trees are dying. The point is to flag the fact that they are dying and to highlight both the tragedy of that reality and to stress the implications that that reality will have for these core public spaces in the coming years.

In any case, within 18 months of the playground opening and less than a year after the opening of EMMP, assessments of old-growth trees were starting to note with concern that their health was not good.

While the likely necessity of removal of several trees was expected earlier this year in the Spring, DDOT Urban Foresters delayed the decision multiple times, hoping that the trees would bounce back in the Spring and Summer. But, as mentioned above, they eventually did start the process two weeks ago.

They also concluded that another 8 to 10 old growth trees may need to be removed for similar reasons of failing health at some point during the next year.

DDOT Urban Foresters will be planting new trees to replace the ones that are removed at a ratio of 1:2 or 1:3 for each tree removed. In addition, they plan to plant multiple additional trees in the park areas at the same time, notably in Metro Plaza behind the performance pavilion seating along the grassy stretch across from SE Library and in the central portion of the playground/park area along the pathway and benches which transect the park immediately south of the playground and splashpad.

Noticeable Impact

All the trees being removed are a loss to the community.  A few specific ones will have the biggest noticeable impact. These include:

  1. The large Linden tree on Metro Plaza bordering the 400 block of Seventh Street SE (opposite the Southeast Library).
  2. The large Pagoda tree overlooking and shading the splashpad.
  3. The large Pagoda tree in the southeast corner of the playground/park near the corner of Ninth and Pennsylvania Avenue SE (pictured) which dominates that area of the park and which has a raised boardwalk and a circular stand of benches custom built to surround it.
Benches were custom built to surround this tree along Ninth Street SE. It is now slated for removal. Photo: S. Holtzman

A Lack of Shade

In addition to the intrinsic loss of these living old-growth trees, there will be an additional impact which should be a significant concern of residents using these public spaces. Even taking account of the selection of fast growing species, the new young trees planted to replace them, like the new young trees planted by the project 2 years ago, will take at least 7 to 8 years until they grow to a degree where they provide any significant shade for the park areas.

As things stand now, the huge success of these spaces, since their opening, has been tempered by the difficulty of residents finding shade in the summer and even in some of the spring months. The situation will get worse as these old growth trees disappear.

The original design of the project included the erection of shade structures both on Metro Plaza and in the playground/park across Pennsylvania Avenue. The performance pavilion built on Metro Plaza has, to some degree, provided shade but, as many observed during last summer’s Jazz concerts, the shade did not extend to the seating areas.

In the park across the street, the playground was built with a small central shade structure with very limited coverage. But, the existing shade, insufficient as it is, will shrink a good deal with the tree removal this year and the further removals anticipated next year.

The original plan for artificial shade structures to supplement tree shade was opposed on esthetic and historic preservation grounds by the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA), which had a regulatory review role in the approval of the final plans for the project. Consequently, the planned shade structures were removed from the design and never built.

Call for Expansion of Artificial Shade

The umbrella tables retrofitted by the project a few months ago near the corner of Ninth Streets and South Carolina Avenue SE was a small recognition of the reality that the continuance of the vibrancy of these spaces is closely linked to ensuring that residents can comfortably use them throughout the year.

Ample availability of shade, as well as regular and appropriate maintenance, (another issue which is a huge problem right now) were the two key issues that the community consistently stressed as fundamental aspects of these spaces that were essential for the sustainability of these new public spaces. (I’ll be sending something around shortly re the multi-faceted maintenance issue).

Now is an appropriate time to revisit that question and explore with DC government agencies and with the Mayor and the DC Council the scope for expansion of artificial shade structures throughout the new parks.

Steve Holtzman is the Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner (ANC) representing ANC 6B05. You can reach him at 6B05@anc.dc.gov. 

This article is an adaptation of a note the commissioner sent to his constituents and is here reproduced with permission.

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