The idea had been raised numerous times in San Luis Obispo over the past two decades: Plant a holiday tree in Mission Plaza to save money, time and energy by not annually shipping a cut fir tree from Oregon.
The 20-foot-tall deodar cedar planted in late September in Mission Plaza has garnered some positive feedback but also complaints — specifically that the tree blocks views of the historic Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, of events and of the annual menorah.
Three students from Mission Prep, a Catholic high school in San Luis Obispo, also wrote the San Luis Obispo City Council with concerns that the tree sticks out, will limit views of graduation — which is held on the plaza — and should be moved.
In response, the City Council voted 4-1 Tuesday to move the tree after the holidays until a master plan for Mission Plaza is created that provides a permanent location for a live tree. Councilwoman Carlyn Christianson dissented.
“I appreciate that staff took the step to install a permanent holiday tree,” Councilman John Ashbaugh said, “but the decision to place a tree permanently anywhere in the plaza is one that needed to have more people involved.”
Several public speakers with ties to the mission asked the council to move the tree, saying it was obstructing an iconic view and worrying that the church had not been brought into the discussion before the tree was planted.
“It just seems totally inappropriate, and we never would have approved that tree had there been consultation,” said Dan Krieger, who said the Rev. Russell Brown of the mission asked him to speak.
Krieger, who serves as the volunteer coordinator for the mission’s historical element, also writes the Times Past column for The Tribune.
The mission’s photographer, Michael LaFreniere, added, “My issue is not that there’s a tree planted in Mission Plaza, but that there’s an obstruction of view and devaluing of property.”
For more than 25 years, the city has assisted the San Luis Obispo Downtown Association in placing a cut tree in Mission Plaza in late November, decorating it and removing it in January. The Downtown Association covers the cost of the tree, which Executive Director Dominic Tartaglia estimated at $500 a year, not including the cost of staff time to install and decorate it.
There had been informal discussion over the years of planting a permanent tree in Mission Plaza, and city staff carefully considered several locations before planting the tree, said Ron Combs, the city’s arborist. The final location was chosen by parks and public works staff, including Combs and his staff, he said.
I appreciate that staff took the step to install a permanent holiday tree, but the decision to place a tree permanently anywhere in the plaza is one that needed to have more people involved.
San Luis Obispo Councilman John Ashbaugh
Other locations considered were the planter opposite where the tree was planted, a location near Warden Bridge and the turf area. But those spots were rejected for various reasons: too much foot traffic, concerns about vandalism and the potential for existing eucalyptus trees to take water and nutrients that would prevent the new tree from thriving.
But several council members were concerned that there wasn’t more public outreach before the tree was planted.
Mayor Jan Marx said she was surprised that staff didn’t wait until after a master plan for Mission Plaza was in place.
“I’m uncomfortable with the process we went through,” Councilman Dan Carpenter said. “And because we were not thorough in our process, there’s probably a cost to pay for it. I would like to see the tree moved, and if it dies in the process, that’s part of the cost.”
It cost the city about $3,400 to buy the cedar and rent a crane to install it, in addition to staff time to plant and care for the tree. The money came from the city’s annual planting budget. Combs said that fund saw some savings last fiscal year, because the urban forest staff spent a lot of time addressing dead and dying trees primarily caused by the drought.
Combs suggested relocating the tree to a permanent spot elsewhere on city property, such as Meadow Park or Mitchell Park. In order to increase its chance for survival, he suggested that it should not be moved a third time. A new tree could be planted in Mission Plaza once a permanent location is chosen.