When Joe Stewart saw that nine trees had been cut down in the 33rd Street median just west of the Loch Raven Boulevard intersection, he was mad – and not just because they were mature and graceful Zelkovas in his neighborhood.
Wide, green 33rd Street is part of a recently designated “historic landscape” named The Olmsted Parkways.
Having two lines of trees on either side of the median is a key feature of 33rd street and the two other boulevards so designated – Gwynns Falls Parkway and portions of The Alameda.
Dozens of community and historic preservation groups pushed for and supported the historic designation campaign. Last March, the City Council made it official by approving Bill 14-0453, sponsored by Council members Mary Pat Clarke and Nick Mosby.
Among the city agencies that added their support to the initiative was the Department of Transportation, the very agency which last week removed the trees.
“That’s exactly what this designation was designed to prevent – DOT just coming in and doing whatever they want without telling anybody,” said Stewart a member of the board of the Better Waverly Community Organization and an activist involved in the campaign to protect the historic roadways.
Meant to connect major city parks and serve as linear parks themselves, the roads were part of the 1904 plan laid out for Baltimore by the landscape company of Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.
Stewart, who contacted The Brew and city officials Friday, said he had “appreciated the City Council’s action” to protect these corridors and was stunned to see trees cut down in one of them without any notice.
“What gets to me is the cavalier attitude the DOT people seem to have,” Stewart said. “After all that, it’s like they didn’t know anything about the 1904 Olmsted plan. It’s like it meant nothing to them!”
Adrienne Barnes, a DOT spokesperson, acknowledged that the agency had cut down the trees.
“We worked with Planning and everything was pre-approved,” Barnes said. “We will be replacing most of the trees that were cut down. We are installing a left-turn lane in that area eastbound 33rd to go North on Loch Raven. We have engaged the community on this discussion.”
City Arborist Erik M. Dihle said he hadn’t known about the project. “The Department of Forestry was caught by surprise, that’s for sure,” he told The Brew.
But Dihle said he has since learned that the project had been approved “prior to the landmark designation.” In an email to Stewart, he concluded that the problem was only “a matter of better communication between all parties.”
Stewart said no one in the community was told about a DOT project for which trees would be removed. “I disagree that this was simply a matter of poor communications,” he said in an email to Dihle.
“DOT never raised this at any of the public hearings. The common understanding expressed by the staff and commissioners was that CHAP [Commission on Historical and Architectural Preservation] would have a review before any work was done.”
“Better Waverly and CHUM [the Coldstream Homestead Montebello neighborhood], the two associations bordering this, were never informed of this project and never approved it,” Stewart said.
Eric Holcomb, CHAP’s executive director, also said the project had been in the works prior to the landmark designation “and has received federal funding.”
Holcomb said the community sought the intersection changes to control traffic and make the intersection safer. Asked if there was community engagement, he said “Talk to [Councilwoman] Mary Pat Clarke.”
In the future, he said, CHAP would have to approve any modification to the three parkways, including tree-cutting, in accordance with the historic designation.
What Clarke Said
Asked about the intersection work, Clarke said she did not recall requesting it.
“I do not know where the community request originated. It apparently originated so long ago. I have asked Transportation to please help me” by looking in their records, she said. “I go to a lot of meetings and it’s possible it’s something I’ve forgotten.”
But like Stewart, Clarke is clear about one thing:
She said the subject of the intersection work and tree removal on 33rd never came up during meetings in the community and with DOT around the Olmsted Parkway designation.
“It was not part of the discussion. I have never had a conversation with DOT in the context of the preservation of the median about this [intersection] project,” she stated.