TAMPA — With summer temperatures consistently around 90 degrees, property manager Cal Buikema knows the importance of the oak trees that line his skyscraper.
"Heat deterrence," he says.
Over the years, he has also come to admire their stature as tall sentries complementing his 42-story downtown building with pewter-tinted windows and a Spanish rosa dante granite surface that rises into a pyramid.
"Aesthetically, they're much superior to a tree that's 8- to 10-feet tall," he said. "These trees are 20- to 30-feet tall."
But smaller trees were what the city wanted to replace the oaks with in June. That's when Buikema fielded a call from a city parks official who wanted to replace six oaks along the building's Whiting Street side for free.
Buikema was confused. He understood the project to be related to sprucing up the city before the Republican National Convention. But the existing oak trees looked healthy to him. Their roots had never cracked the sidewalk. Their tops weren't near power lines.
He talked it over with building officials and they came back to the city with an answer: No thanks.
Located at 100 N Tampa St., Tampa's tallest building houses Regions Bank, the Holland & Knight law firm and other businesses. It stands out in this case because it withstood a massive city tree replacement project that felled more than 300 trees downtown and in Ybor City.
The project has confused or angered many merchants and residents who wonder how many healthy trees may have been cut down, wasting precious shade and public dollars.
Between the spring and Sept. 21, the city spent $422,000 to replace trees that included oaks and hollies that the city says were difficult to maintain, diseased, aging, buckling sidewalks and grates or obstructing power lines. The city proposed to replace them with 376 palms, olives and crape myrtles, which city tree experts believed were more suitable for the urban core.
But last week, after complaints from Ybor City about 102 trees a city contractor sawed away, City Council members examined the surveys used to determine which trees needed to be replaced. They saw conflicting or incomplete reports that cast doubt on the administration's stated reasons.
The controversy caused parks officials to postpone replanting trees in Ybor City until an Oct. 16 architectural commission review meeting, while the City Council asked department heads for more specifics on the tree project on Nov. 1.
"Why they got cut and who initiated it," Buikema said, "that's for you to find out."
His anecdote raises several questions about the city's project. Who owns the trees at 100 N Tampa St. and why were they targeted? Why did the city move on if officials felt the trees might have been a safety hazard? Are the trees healthy or sick?
Building officials said they picked out the trees in question in 1992 from a Hernando County farm. They selected live oaks, officials said, because the city told them they were appropriate for downtown. While the building owner claims to also own the trees, Tampa spokeswoman Ali Glisson said, the trees really lie in city right of way.
"Parks does not install or remove trees on private property," she said in an email.
The city wanted to take the oaks down, Parks and Recreation director Greg Bayor said, because they were in decline.
"They have about five more years of life," he said. "That means in three to five years, they'll start to have maintenance issues and will have limbs that will need to come down."
The city moved on because 100 North Tampa's owner opposed the request and government officials wanted to accommodate the wishes of the prominent building's owner.
Buikema questioned the city's assessment of the trees' conditions. He said all of the nearly 25 trees he oversees on the property seem healthy.
Shawn Landry, a research associate professor and program director of the Florida Center for Community Design and Research at the University of South Florida, has studied Tampa's tree canopy for the city since 1996. He said there are many trees in Tampa that were planted in the wrong place or are reaching their life expectancies.
But he can't say who's right about 100 North Tampa, leaving the truth about species types, longevity and conditions in dispute like much of the city's tree project.
"What we often call oaks, many of them are bastard oaks," he said. "Bastard oaks are basically oaks that interbreed and you get unintentional crossovers and what you might think at first is a live oak may be something much more similar to a laurel oak or something else that might not have a life span of a live oak. Live oaks are long lived, and if they're in the right place, they'll last forever."
Justin George can be reached at [email protected], (813) 226-3368 or Twitter @justingeorge.