In what Salem City Councilor Tom Andersen describes as “a real victory for the community” a historic Bigleaf maple at a much-viewed intersection has been saved from the ax. Many celebrate the rescue of the beloved monument.
Jan Staszewski, Urban Forester for the City of Salem Public Works Department says it’s hard to know the exact age of the 80-foot maple on the southeast corner of Liberty St SE and Mission St SE but, “From [an] old aerial photo, it appears there was a small tree at this intersection about 150 years ago.”
The tree is located in the City’s right-of-way, close to Liberty Street, which makes it a City-owned street tree.
Adjacent property transitions from residential
Lisa Anderson-Ogilvie, Interim Community Development Director for the City of Salem’s Community Development Department notes that the tree “is located within the boundaries of the Gaiety-Hill/Bush’s Pasture Park National Register Historic District.” The maple grows right next to a rectangular-shaped lot, extending east along Mission, that has been unused for years. The site was originally zoned for residential use and in recent years, the previous owner allowed several older homes to stand uninhabited and uncared for and cut down another maple, the same age as the one on the corner, on the property. Finally, the City had to issue demolition orders to remove the derelict buildings.
One potential buyer for the lot was Dr. R. Tyson Scott, a Salem podiatrist. Scott began early on working with the South Central Association of Neighbors (SCAN) says Kathleen Moynihan, a registered nurse and SCAN member who, with her friend Irene, had pruned ivy from the maple tree during the years it was neglected. At Scott’s invitation, Moynihan reviewed two sets of architectural drawings, designs for a Craftsman-style building that would blend in with the historic nature of the neighborhood.
“Dr. Scott came to SCAN to show us the architectural plans months ago,” Moynihan says, and the process the podiatrist undertook was lengthy. “The property had to change from residential to commercial office space with a zone change from the Planning Commission, [and] there had to be a historical review, where the historical district had to make sure the construction met the requisite for fitting in.” This included a design approval on October 21, 2016, from the City of Salem’s Historic Landmarks Commission.
Part of the design involved a sidewalk on the tree’s west side that would gracefully skirt the wide trunk and upper root system. “That sidewalk pathway has never changed its route,” Scott says. “The path was always supposed to go around this tree.”
Sue Dauer, retired Western Oregon University professor and neighbor, was one among many neighbors who celebrated the design of the clinic and the way the tree was integrated. “I am so pleased that the architecture fits in with our Gaiety Hill homes,” she says, “kudos!” Dauer passes the tree often, she says, and “it has always been a pillar of strength… With it’s gnarled, bulbous trunk, I always think of how much this tree has witnessed. It’s a magnificent specimen.”
With a go-ahead from all parties, construction began.
Despite efforts to protect it, the tree was damaged in construction Dr. Scott says, “from Day One” keeping the tree, although it grows on City property, not his own, “was always the plan. I feel like after the houses were torn down, the maple tree was the only item that added charter to the corner.”
Jon Christenson, Chair of SCAN’s Historic Preservation, Parks & Gardens Committee, agrees Scott wanted the tree to stay. The maple was “specifically mentioned,” he notes, in the Historic Landmarks Commission Findings last October. Christenson points to Page 3 of the design approval, which reads, “There is a large Bigleaf Maple on the northwest corner of the site, which will be retained.”
To further protect the tree, Scott, working with building contractor, Duncan Construction, paid extra for a certified arborist to observe any work that involved the tree as the property was developed.
But, apparently under the eye of Duncan’s arborist, at some point during escavation and building, a major 12” root on the east side of the tree was cut.
Photos taken by Duncan in mid-March show that construction fencing was termporarily moved to a few feet from the base of the tree and most roots on the east side of the tree, including a major 12” structural root, were completely severed 11 feet from the trunk. This damage was done within the area that should have been protected from construction activities.
Scott says any actual roots would have been cut by the project arborist personally, and only with a chainsaw instead of major equipment, since Scott “did not want construction workers cutting the roots.”
Salem Weekly contacted Duncan Construction to ask to speak to the project arborist that Scott paid for, and received no reply.
Shortly after the root was cut, the tree appeared to be failing.
City Forester recommends removal
Anderson-Ogilvie says that it was about this time that City Urban Forester Staszewski became concerned about the health of the tree. “It visually appeared to be in decline,” Anderson-Ogilvie says, “and [was] now located next to a development, instead of a vacant lot. Therefore, [Staszewski] conducted a Risk Assessment of the tree in May 2017. The Urban Forester has a Tree Risk Assessment Qualification from the International Society of Arboriculture. In a May 18 City memo, Staszewski noted he had found several points of decay in major limbs as well as decay in several large cavities in the trunk. The tree Staszewski concluded, posed an imminent risk and met removal criteria established by city code SRC 86.090.
His findings caused him to recommend the tree’s removal and replacement in an application for Historic Design Review.
Word traveled fast. “I went to SCAN the day after I heard the city wanted to take the tree down,” Dr. Scott says. “I want SCAN and me to have a good working relationship… This is planned to be a Foot and Ankle Clinic until I die, and I truly want the tree, because it adds character to the corner.’
The City has steps in place to prevent the hasty removal of trees, Anderson-Ogilvie says, and in the case of the maple, a Historic Design Review Decision had to be issued before further action could be taken.
Christenson’s SCAN committee monitors all proposals that might impact mature trees in the public Right-of-Way in the National Historic District. The committee noticed the application, he says, and mentioned it in a regular report routinely viewed by Ward 2 city councilor, Tom Andersen, among others.
“Councilor Andersen bikes and knows the streetscape in the district very well, the nuances, the special places for those that walk and use sidewalks,” Christenson says.
Andersen, who still recalls “the consternation when a huge white oak at Salem Hospital’s expansion [onto the former School for the Blind] had to be removed after being damaged by construction,” says, “the neighbors did not want that maple tree to suffer in a similar way.”
Andersen contacted Peter Fernandez, Director of Public Works for the City of Salem, by email. “I told him how much the neighbors value the tree, and asked if it was possible to get a second opinion. Peter Fernandez, to his credit, said, ‘yes, that’s a great idea. We would be glad to do that’.”
The City hired Teragan & Associates of Lake Oswego who conducted an independent evaluation in June. Teragan found decay similar to what Staszewski noted, with an additional discovery; although a construction company representative recalled to Teragan that the tree had had protection during construction, the project arborist was on site during excavation, and no major roots were encountered – photographs showed the severed 12” root that Staszewski had not been able to observe because it had been buried.
In the end Taragan found that though that the 12” root was a major connecter of the maple’s root system and “the construction of the building has eliminated the presence of most of the roots on its east side,” there was a higher probability of the tree surviving than the City assessment gave it.
Teragan suggested mitigating steps that might save the tree, including reducing it “to lessen the amount of structure it is struggling to support” coupled with “an immediately implemented long-term prescriptive fertilization, watering and root care program aimed at improving the integrity of the root system.”
After the City obtained this assessment, the Urban Forester withdrew the City’s application for historic review of the tree removal.
“So the city did great, and paid for the independent assessment,” Andersen says, “and fortunately, the second evaluation said the tree did not have to be taken down. We now know steps can be taken to support it going forward. The city is to be congratulated, and I want to congratulate Public Works for getting a second opinion and following its recommendations. It was a win-win for everyone in the neighborhood.”
Although the tree is still ranked with a high-risk rating for failure, it is indisputable that the community is pulling for it.
“It is a beautiful sidewalk specimen of a century old native maple,” Christenson says, “important to the historic streetscape of the district.”