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SF wants to ax dozens of Mission trees, but neighbors cry gentrification

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“The trees have become the only consistent image and show of strength and comfort during these troubled times”

A tree frames a building facade with a large sign reading “Sanchez.”
A tree grows on 24th Street above a pupuseria.
Photo by Brock Keeling

For the 24th Street corridor in the Mission, a fight over the fate of the neighborhood’s beautiful but potentially hazardous ficus trees is about more than local greenery—it’s yet another front in the conflict about the heart of the neighborhood, and whether it’s threatened by the city itself.

In 2018, the SF Department of Public Works (DPW) posted notices along 24th Street, between Mission and Potrero, announcing plans to remove dozens of trees along the sidewalk—77 of them in all. Since then the count has come down to 48 as DPW made concessions to tree preservationists.

Picturesque though they may be, the city has soured on the soaring ficus trees, telling residents that the stunners are prone to dropping branches, splitting and falling, and tearing up the sidewalks with their roots.

DPW wanted to replace the old trees with new, less troublesome specimens, although the proposal does not call for replacing every tree the city wants removed.

Unsurprisingly, many business owners, residents, and frequent visitors to the neighborhood demanded that the city make like a tree and leave with those plans, calling for the preservation of the decades-old plantings.

Now the conflict has branched out to the city’s Board of Appeals, the body that allows residents to challenge city government decisions in what are often last-ditch efforts, with no fewer than three appeals slated for a Wednesday hearing hoping to clear away the still-pending tree removal.

It’s not just that people like the ficus trees. The appeals, like the one filed by the Calle 24 Cultural District, claim that these trees in particular are a cultural symbol of the south Mission, and frame the removal as part of a long, grinding war of gentrification on the neighborhood.

“The trees have become the only consistent image and show of strength and comfort during these troubled times,” according to the Calle 24 filing.

“There are so few pieces of the heart of San Francisco left,” Erica Garrecht-Williams, a San Francisco social worker, wrote in an email to the appeals board in September of last year, characterizing the trees as survivors of the gentrification that has driven other longtime residents out of the neighborhood.

Tellingly, in his notes from community meetings over the past two years, the Bureau of Urban Forestry’s Chris Buck notes that a common sentiment is that the city would not attempt such a large deforestation in a wealthier neighborhood.

Buck counters that the long-term health of most of the trees on the street is simply not feasible, and that the city will provide as many replacements as it can.

How DPW and related departments feel about the idea of the trees as symbols of Mission culture isn’t clear, although the number of trees to be axed has diminished considerably since 2018 in response to complaints, with 25 hoping to be preserved through “radical pruning.”

The Board of Appeals meets Wednesday, January 8, at five o’clock.