Saturday, January 22, 2005


Click here: 01/20/2005 As trees fall, tensions rise
Posted on Thu, Jan. 20, 2005


As trees fall, tensions rise

The city of Miami said it will improve Cuban Memorial Boulevard by cutting down trees and replacing them with more appropriate ones. But some residents are enraged.


For nearly two decades, Mara Cohen's mornings have started off in a home on Little Havana's shady Southwest 13th Avenue, greeted by the singing of nearby mockingbirds.

Other times of day normally provide additional wildlife-in-the-city sights and sounds. Squirrels scampering. Owls cooing.

But things have changed now that Miami leaders have begun an ambitious $2.6 million overhaul of the thoroughfare, more commonly known as Cuban Memorial Boulevard. Majestic trees are becoming stumps.

In order to turn the street into a ''pedestrian-friendly'' walkway bridging Calle Ocho to Coral Way, the city says it must remove or relocate nearly 200 trees and shrubs.

Trees began coming down over the holidays, with tensions between residents and the city steadily increasing since then.

The city promises to plant two trees or shrubs for each one that is uprooted, but Cohen and other residents remain furious and distraught.

Among their criticisms: The new trees will be smaller and incapable of replacing lost tree canopy, or bringing back the animals who are starting to flee after losing their homes.

''The owls were crying,'' Cohen said, her own eyes at times tearing up. ``We heard them. Crying all night long.''

Miami City Commissioner Joe Sanchez -- whose district includes Cuban Memorial Boulevard and who is a staunch advocate for the current project -- says he understands that tall, old trees have sentimental value.

However, Sanchez says many of those beloved trees that are being cut down are either exotic species not meant for the area, sick trees or trees with roots that are interfering with electrical utilities or drainage improvements.

Sanchez says the boulevard's canopy will be restored to what it was before construction began -- it just might take a few years.

''Anytime you do a major project like this, there's opposition,'' said Sanchez, who said a few opponents are politically motivated. Some people, Sanchez said, are trying to label him a ``tree killer.''

The city couldn't immediately provide a breakdown of the tree species being cut or replanted. Hugh Ryan, president of the Miami Shenandoah Neighborhood Association -- which has some members who live on the street -- said that in his conversations with city leaders he was told the tree species being taken out included black olive and a few oak trees -- though the oaks would be replanted at a city park. The new tree species planted would include crepe myrtle, silver buttonwood and mahogany, Ryan said.


Miami-Dade County -- its tropical paradise reputation notwithstanding -- actually ranks as one of the least shady places in the nation. Neighborhoods -- or individual blocks, for that matter -- that boast dense tree canopy have on many occasions gotten into fierce battles to save the greenery that boosts both air quality and property values.

Little Havana, like many older Miami neighborhoods, has experienced some rough years but is in the midst of a rebirth, and now has a growing supply of residents sensitive to tree canopies and other aesthetic concerns.

Construction along Cuban Memorial Boulevard -- home to monuments saluting Bay of Pigs casualties, Cuban political prisoners and journalists, among others -- is scheduled to be completed by the middle of this year, paid for with bond money approved by voters for parks and other capital improvements.

Sanchez, despite the protests, said he has no plans to try to halt the project or scale down its scope.

The city held two public meetings during the design process, and Sanchez said that was the appropriate time for residents to raise their concerns. When residents complained at the meetings that benches installed as part of the overhaul would attract the homeless, some benches were removed from the plan, Sanchez said.


Things become a little fuzzy, however, on the question of whether residents were specifically warned that trees would be on the chopping block. Sanchez said he told those in attendance that trees would have to be removed, but didn't give a specific number of trees because that hadn't been figured out yet.

Ryan complained that members weren't consulted as the city was putting together its street makeover.

''We weren't really called for any input,'' Ryan said. ``The easiest way to get the word out through any community is the associations, and we've been active for years.''

Sanchez countered that his office ''passed out 1,000 fliers'' in advance of the community meetings. The meetings featured a Powerpoint computer presentation that Sanchez says impressed those in attendence.

And some Cuban Memorial Boulevard residents who have never seen the computer images still support the changes. Leoner Jimenez, for one, says it just makes sense to replace older, sick trees with healthier ones. Jimenez wonders if the boulevard will become a little too nice, shooting property values through the roof.

''The only thing that would bother me,'' Jimenez said, ``is if they raise my taxes.''


SAVE OUR TREES: Mara Cohen of Little Havana protests the cutting of old trees along Southwest 13th Avenue. DONNA E. NATALE PLANAS/HERALD STAFF

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