Tuesday, November 21, 2017
News Roundup

Stumped by Ybor City tree loss? Tampa explains beautification project

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TAMPA

The 102 trees chopped down along the sidewalks of Ybor City, leaving behind tall stumps and astonished merchants, are part of a broader project to take down diseased and problem trees.

Tampa city officials acknowledged Tuesday their landscaping project could have gone smoother in the historic district had they done a better job of informing merchants, residents, chamber executives and City Council members.

The Ybor Community Development Corp., a city redevelopment agency, knew about the project "a long time ago," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Tuesday.

But the word didn't spread much further than that.

"I was not happy this morning," Buckhorn said, the day an article in the Tampa Bay Times quoted community members confused and outraged over the removal.

On Friday, Ybor merchants watched work crews from city contractor ValleyCrest Tree Care Services roll into the square-mile business district of old cigar factories, lofts, nightclubs and restaurants and chop down tree after tree — leaving stumps and barren blocks for thousands of tourists and nighttime patrons to stare at all weekend. A brief city announcement about the project on Friday seemed to reach few.

On Tuesday, city spokeswoman Ali Glisson said the removal was part of a 376-tree, $422,000 replacement program in Ybor and downtown that began near Old City Hall before last month's Republican National Convention. Trees selected for removal included those diseased as well as some that interfered with power lines, buckled or obstructed sidewalks and pushed up brick walkways or historic paths.

"Essentially, they have become an annual maintenance issue, especially in more urban areas where the right of way and sidewalks are tight," she said in a statement.

The trees cut down included oaks, elms and hollies planted in the 1980s when they were considered the best trees for an urban landscape, according to the city. Fifteen years ago, sphaeropsis gall, a fungal disease, began infecting Tampa's hollies, which started their decline. Most of the trees removed in Ybor were East Palatka hollies.

The tall stumps should be removed this week. In hindsight, Tampa Parks and Recreation director Greg Bayor said he wished the contractor had removed them the same day.

"It was a terrible look up and down the street," he said.

Ten-to-12-foot-tall crape myrtles, olive trees and palms — chosen because of their look and ability to provide some shade while staying out of pedestrian paths — will replace the old trees and other empty wells by Oct. 19.

"We are not replacing the full-grown trees with saplings," Glisson said.

The city decided to overhaul the trees all at once, using its Tree Trust Fund to pay for it. That fund collects money from developers who pay to remove trees, and fines for illegally cut trees.

Neither TECO Energy, which maintains the power lines, nor Tampa police, who oversee some district security cameras, urged the city to clear the trees, representatives of both agencies said.

Eric Schiller, owner of Gaspar's Grotto pub, welcomed the swap because trees outside his restaurant seemed "shot." But he understood the consternation.

"It's like pulling out a splinter," he said. "You know it's needed but when it finally happens it still hurts. But it was the right thing to do."

Not everyone remains pacified. Joe Chillura, a former City Council member and Hillsborough County commissioner, authored the city's 1972 tree ordinance, which protects trees from indiscriminate clearing. He read about the tree removal and looked up his ordinance again, only to learn the city was exempted in the 1980s.

He wondered why.

"Why shouldn't the government follow the rules of the governed?" he asked.

Times staff writer Sue Carlton contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at [email protected], (813) 226-3368 or Twitter @justingeorge.

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