On an August morning, Lori Burke, a resident of Reno’s historic Powning District, woke up to the sound of a chainsaw and watched as the 100-year-old trees that neighborhood residents had tried to save fell prey to a new apartment development.
In May, she and other area residents were upset that the long row of elms near the 34-unit apartment project at 700 Riverside Drive were being mowed down. Burke and three neighbors filed an appeal of the building permit for the development, but construction continued apace.
“People say there aren’t many people who live (near the development) and are affected,” Burke said. “That’s not true. Everybody who goes to the farmer’s market, everybody goes downtown, parking, businesses. It’s a public right of way.”
For decades, Burke was able to stand in front of her house, almost directly across Jones Street from the new development, and look straight down the road lined with stately elms. When crews were in the process of cutting the trees in May, Burke, her neighbors and a Reno councilwoman asked the developer to save a few trees. But that wasn’t possible, according to city officials. Burke, however, believes that more careful – and presumably more expensive – construction techniques could have spared the elms.
Paddy Egan, owner of Urban Investments, the developer of 700 Riverside, said in a statement the trees will be replaced with tree species that are less invasive than elms. The total number of trees in the neighborhood, he said, increase when the project is finished.
The Powning District is classified as one of the City of Reno’s Conservation Districts, marking it as a neighborhood that deserves special attention to maintain its historical character. Cassie Harris, city spokeswoman, noted that the development is private property and that experts evaluated the trees.
“The trees on Jones Street, located adjacent to the Riverside development project, were evaluated by an arborist and, in consultation with the City of Reno urban forester, were determined to be structurally compromised,” Harris said. “They presented a risk to structures, pedestrians, and vehicles and were removed.”
Councilwoman Naomi Duerr, a self-described tree advocate, said that after residents complained in May, the developer agreed to save as many trees as possible. Duerr noted that although she wasn’t familiar with the specifics of this development, other sites and a few other companies around Reno had seen success in preserving trees by using techniques such as building sidewalks that use thinner materials or have built sidewalks above ground.
Egan said there was no official agreement concerning the trees, and his firm told city officials they would try their best to save them, which wasn’t possible. Egan said that the company was made aware of no other alternative methods to construct a sidewalk, and the development built the sidewalks to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“These sidewalks were required to be at a certain level in order to meet ADA standards (they could not be too steep and go over the root systems for example),” Egan said. “Ultimately those standards required cutting through a portion of the trees’ roots.”
Duerr disagreed. “It’s not a requirement,” she said. “I went out on site and called the developer and told him the value of those trees in sense of place, value in the new development in sense of permanence and stability that it brings.”
Burke wants the city to take action under a section of the city’s Land Development Code, which is designed to preserve landscapes that are affected by specific types of development projects in historic districts. Burke believes that process would give the public and neighborhood residents more opportunity to interact with the project. Burke said cutting down the trees was an example of bad faith between the developers and the neighborhood.
“We always knew there was (going to be) be development and had no problem with that, absolutely none,” Burke said. “I don’t think anybody doesn’t recognize that (building more) housing is a clear issue. But not every project is good and this is a bad project. It doesn’t fit.”
“We were the only party spending money on the effort to save these trees while we weren’t required to,” Egan said. “Our professional arborist and the City arborist were in agreement that the trees finally needed to come down, and that was subsequently communicated to the City prior to their removal.”