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Neighbors Act to Ensure Ancient Elm Preserved When Alleyway Gets Rebuilt

By P.L. Wolff

Not widely known by Dupont Circle residents, or even by historic preservationists, is that tucked away in the alley on the south side of Corcoran Street’s 1700 block stands tall and proud one of the city’s — if not the entire metro area’s — most ancient trees.

One place outside of the immediate neighborhood where this tree is known is at the Smithsonian Institution which, through its Associates program, often guides Dupont Circle walking tour groups through this alley to view not only the restored rears of Corcoran Street’s late 19th century row houses but to view with awe this magnificent, rare survivor of the area’s bucolic past.

February 2004 view looking east toward 17th Street from the alley’s New Hampshire Avenue end; the tall building shown in the far distance is the historic Cairo condominium. As will be seen in this picture, a small portion of the tree trunk does straddle the property line and is actually within the public alley right of way. photo--Micael K. Wilkinson--InTowner.

February 2004 view looking east toward 17th Street from the alley’s New Hampshire Avenue end; the tall building shown in the far distance is the historic Cairo condominium. As will be seen in this picture, a small portion of the tree trunk does straddle the property line and is actually within the public alley right of way. photo–Micael K. Wilkinson–InTowner.

This enormous American Elm, estimated to be approximately 250 years old (that is, a quarter-of-a-millennium and still thriving), is said to be growing on land that was once owned by President Andrew Jackson back in the mid-19th century when the entire area north of what is now Massachusetts Avenue was near wilderness, replete with small streams and deep gullies.

What has neighbors and others who care about the city’s endangered trees concerned is that the scheduled project for completely rebuilding the alley will so damage the tree’s root system that it will surely die unless great care is taken during the roadway construction.

This project, which had been promised — and even scheduled more than once but never carried out — during the past several years is one that neighbors have long been clamoring to have completed in light of the alley’s seriously deteriorated condition and the danger that it poses to vehicles and residents on foot.

The InTowner has been assured that the work will in fact be done, according to Ward 2’s Neighborhood Services Coordinator Clark Ray, a mayoral assistant. “While this,” Clark said, “is not the first time we have received such an assurance, we have been told in no uncertain terms that a contract has been issued.” (For the record, however, back in 2002 a contract had also been issued for this job but the contractor failed to follow-through after having arrived to start work one morning and was turned away because, unknown to the contractor, Washington Gas was doing non-emergency work and the city’s official responsible for coordinating right-of-way construction had not informed the contractor of the gas company’s previously scheduled dig.)

But, back to the concerns about the tree. Because this will not be a mere resurfacing job, but will entail a total rebuilding of the roadway’s underlying foundation, unless extreme care is taken there is virtually a 100 percent likelihood that the tree will succumb to the effects of the roadway work; its extensive root system spreads far out below the alley all the way into the parking area on the alley’s south side, behind a row of Q Street condominium houses.

The owners of the property on which 90 percent of the tree’s massive trunk sits (approximately 10 percent extends over the property line onto the public space itself), along with the Corcoran Mews Condominium Association owners whose rear patios and roof decks are substantially enhanced by the tree’s over-spreading branches, value the tree so much that for many years they have allocated from their budgets considerable funds for its maintenance; in January, alone, they paid $2,000 to Branches Tree Experts in Takoma Park for trimming.

At that time, when Branches’ arborist Michael Guerchin was present to supervise the work being performed, he made what neighbor Jon Keeton characterized as a stark prediction: “It [the alley reconstruction] will kill the tree if done in the usual fashion.” He offered his services to be on hand to assist in guiding the contractor in avoiding cutting the roots.

In a recent request made to Ward 2 coordinator Ray, Keeton explained the problem and made the request that the city agree to this offer of assistance by the private tree expert. In response, Ray forwarded Keeton’s information about the tree and request to the city’s own arborist, Bill Beck, who, in turn responded by stating that he would “pass this along to Tchako Ngandjui who is in charge of construction in Ward 2.” No mention, however, was made about the request for the neighbors to have their outside arborist present to lend his professional expertise so as to avoid the potential for irreparable damage as described.

In his pitch to Ray, Keeton also added the following observation: “With the Casey donation now offering a resurgence of our city’s trees, it would be a tragedy to lose such a wonder due to sloppy, fast work by uncaring workers. We ask your assistance in seeing that protections are put in place during the planned work.”

Coincidentally, on February 6, the city’s Department of Transportation (DDOT) published in the DC Register its proposed new tree regulations for public comment. These regulations will implement the City Council-enacted Urban Forest Preservation Act of 2002.

Following the 30-day comment period and approval by the Council, a permit will be required before a property owner may remove any non-hazardous tree having a circumference greater than 55 inches (measured at a height of four-and-a-half feet from the ground). The owner will be required to pay a fee of $35 per inch of circumference into a tree fund “or plant a sapling equal in circumference to the removed tree.” (Not explained is whether it is possible for a sapling to have a trunk circumference as much as up to 55 inches.)

DDOT’s Urban Forestry Administration will administer the law, including issuing permits and assessing fines for violations, the proceeds of which will be directed to planting additional trees throughout the District rather than being deposited in the city’s general fund.