TAMPA — It has been referred to as murder without warning or clear motive.
Troy Ligon watched out the windows of his Italian restaurant as trucks rumbled in Friday. Work crews got out, started up saws and chopped down scores of trees that lined the sidewalks in Ybor City's business district. Left behind was the jarring sight of 4-foot-tall beheaded stumps.
"They all seemed healthy," said Ligon, who co-owns the Laughing Cat restaurant on N 15th Street. "I really don't understand."
What was known by Monday was that the city had ordered removing and replacing 110 trees in Ybor City's historic business district. But uncertainty remained about why and at what cost.
Carrie West, president of the GaYBOR District Coalition, and Mark Bias, who co-owns Ybor's MC Film Fest gift shop with West, wrote an email to civic leaders demanding answers.
"(Ninety) plus trees were murdered in Ybor City by the city of Tampa!!!" the email reads. "The tall and luscious trees only crime was providing shade and beauty to historic Ybor City."
Not even the district's City Council member, Frank Reddick, knew what was going on. He learned about the mass removal after a city Barrio Latino historic architectural commissioner asked him.
"My office is looking into it with the administration and hopes to get an answer tomorrow," he said Monday night. "This is the first I heard of it today. No one would discuss it with me in the administration."
Most business owners and neighborhood leaders were also in the dark, though a few got clues Friday when the city made a brief, late afternoon announcement.
The announcement said Ybor was getting "a much needed facelift." Trees would be cut Friday and Saturday and stumps removed Monday. Olive and crape myrtle trees would replace them, all in about a month.
Greg Bayor, Tampa's parks and recreation director, did not know Monday afternoon what type of trees were chosen for removal, or the cost of the project.
The trees were being replaced, he said, because they had reached their life span, were diseased or were disrupting power lines. He said he didn't know when they had been planted, but said state-recommended species, including some palm trees, would take their place.
He said he wasn't sure why merchants in Ybor hadn't received more notice but said his staff had worked with the Ybor City Development Corp. on the project for months.
A call to the YCDC, which is a city redevelopment and revitalization agency, was referred to a city spokeswoman and ultimately to Bayor.
Neither the leader of the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce, nor Tony LaColla, president of the Historic Ybor Neighborhood Civic Association, knew the trees were coming down.
As the trees fell Friday, LaColla called city government. He said someone there told him that 15-year-old live oaks were targeted because they obstructed power lines. Their root systems, he was told, could eventually harm Ybor's historic structures.
"Once I heard the reasoning why, it was completely understandable," he said. "We have to save our historic structures and if some trees have to come down, so be it. At least they'll be replaced with something a little more friendlier to the historic district."
But harm to the Ybor structures was never a reason for the trees' removal, Bayor said.
Norm Easey, CEO of the Florida chapter of the International Society of the Arboriculture, said live oaks could not damage buildings because their root systems go no deeper than 14 inches. They can spread as far as 200 feet, but only if they have unobstructed room to grow.
"It would be unusual for it to damage buildings," he said. "In fact, I would find that almost to be impossible."
The roots could buckle sidewalks, but that's generally tolerated in cities where live oaks exist in many urban areas. He said the city of Venice planted live oaks downtown just after World War II, and they have flourished while surrounded by development.
Power lines, Easey said, are a concern with live oaks, which can grow as tall as 60 feet in Tampa.
"That's a different story," he said. "Trees should never be planted underneath an area where a tree can grow into an overhead utility."
He noted that Tampa's replacement choices will never grow tall enough for shade.
For years, Ybor City's chamber has struggled to play up its historic character and unique daytime shops — not just its nightclubs and entertainment reputation.
"Trees are a real refreshing respite from the cityscape, so they're really important," Chamber president Tom Keating said.
Bayor said the replacement trees would not be just saplings or seedlings.
"It certainly won't be the canopy that was there for a couple of years for sure, but it will be a very pleasant look and a good-sized tree there," he said.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at [email protected], (813) 226-3368 or on Twitter @justingeorge.