A blog dealing with Sarasota County and the City of Sarasota.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Saving the Palms of Palm Avenue

I am on a quest. A quest to find out what the City of Sarasota (as represented by the Downtown Development District) thinks twenty-six cabbage palms are doing wrong.

The Palm Avenue Twenty Six

The palms (ironically?, tragically?) are on Palm Avenue between Coconut and Main. This end of Palm is referred to as North Palm (shortened ominously to NPALM in City-speak), but this is the part of Palm that is turning almost due west.

The Bay Plaza building in the center of the image wraps around the site in question
In the image below you can clearly see the dense, spherical palm canopies (and the dense shade they produce).

Compare the dense shade produced on the south side of the street with the plantings on the north side.

I don’t think there is much question that the two most engaging streets in downtown Sarasota are Main Street and Palm Avenue. Thousands of towns have Main streets, but Palm avenues are far rarer those who find themselves on a Palm Avenue anywhere deserve to be rewarded with a palmy experience that affirms the subtropical potential promised by the name.

There are many palms on our Palm Avenue between Coconut and Ringling and they represent many species. Intriguingly, the densest aggregation of palms are found on this short (150 foot-long) block. These palms are not solitary specimen trees in planters or emerging from the sidewalk, but rather a collection of 26 palms emerging from a lawn – sort of a micro-park.

We know it is parklike because there is even a sign advising people to clean up after their pets. It is the only area along Palm Ave. between Coconut and Ringling where there is a non-trivial patch of grass – grass that the adjacent merchants and not the City maintain.

The presence of this sign recognizes the de facto status as an unofficial "micro-park".
The palms happen to be our State tree, the native cabbage palm. A professional arborist recently described these 26 trees as exhibiting “good vitality and no signs or symptoms infection”. The trees are low maintenance and, being planted so close together, they produce deep shade. The area is extremely pedestrian friendly – people can, and do, walk through the palms on the grass, or use stepping stones. The narrow palm trunks afford great views of the businesses adjacent to the sidewalk.

These are the 26 palms the City of Sarasota wants to take down and send to the landfill and replace with two hollies, eight (freeze sensitive) thatch palms, two Tabebuias and two poisonous shrubs.

Let me repeat: replacing 26 mature shade producing trees with two hollies, two tabebuias, eight small palms, and two poisonous shrubs. The ground cover will either be paved or covered with “groundcovers or pine bark mulch” that will convert the open access, pedestrian friendly area into hardscape and planter beds that signal “keep out”.

This represents approximately 35% of a $240,000 project, so somewhere around $85,000 to $100, 000 to rip out a steadfast, low maintenance landscape and replace it with something new and presumably trendier.

I know what you are thinking. Why? Why would the city spend somewhere around a hundred grand to repudiate trees that have been quietly doing the city’s bidding for decades? That's my question as well.

The Palm Avenue Twenty-Six are planted in front of a single story building that was built in 1954. I'm still trying to find out when the palms were placed there, but I suspect they have been there for many decades. These may actually be trees with historic import.

I've been told (in emails) that the goals of the city were widening the sidewalks, upgrading the landscaping, “undergrounding” of utilities, and adding ornamental street lighting. I understand there was also a drainage or flooding issue that needed to be addressed. If, in fact, those were the five actual front-end goals of the project I am confused because I suspect virtually all of those goals could be achieved in that location without removing any of the palms.  

The City has scheduled a site visit on July 1 when I hope to get to the bottom of why every single one of these trees is slated to disappear. My fear/suspicion is that instead of starting with the existing landscape and modifying it to reach their goals, they started by assuming all the palms would vanish and they could start with a clean slate.

View from the parking garage across the street

As mentioned earlier, this is a project of the Downtown Improvement District (DID),  creature of the Sarasota  City Commission. 

I was speechless to see that their website features a photo of Charleston, a City whose landscaping hallmark consists primarily of cabbage palms (known in South Carolina as palmettos). More irony. Any group intending to improve Charleston would be run out of town on a rail if they proposed removing more than two dozen palmettos.

Actual image from DID website, ostensibly representing their admiration of the use of cabbage palms in Charleston

If you happen to know any of the five directors of the DID

Ernest Ritz

Mark Kauffman

Eileen Hampshire

Thomas Mannausa

Ron Soto

Please contact them and encourage them to reconsider this unfortunate proposal that will trigger an outpouring of outrage from citizens who are currently unaware of the threat.

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