City to remove trees on Peace Portal Drive

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The city of Blaine plans to eventually remove the Armstrong maple trees that line Peace Portal Drive and are causing damage to sidewalk panels. The trees, which have sprawling root systems that some people have tripped over, will be replaced by decorative pots containing flowers and shrubs.

Ravyn Whitewolf, the city of Blaine’s engineering program director, said that the city has spent years addressing safety issues on Peace Portal Drive caused by hazardous tree roots. The city has already removed a number of sidewalk panels and trees and poured concrete over those areas. This work generally requires a lot of staff time and is complicated by the existence of underground utilities in particular zones.

“Every year we’ve tried to invest a little bit more money on the maintenance side to address these issues,” Whitewolf said. “With the limited maintenance money that we have, we were not being as effective as we’d like.”

That’s why city staff included a larger project in the 2020 budget to address root intrusion on Peace Portal Drive’s sidewalks. The project will remove between 50 and 60 maple trees between the Marine Drive roundabout and Clark Street. “We decided that instead of trying to do every other tree and trying to save a few by pruning them, the best way to deal with the sidewalk issues and keep the ambience of downtown as a green and inviting place is to remove all the maples.”

The entire project will cost more than $600,000, Whitewolf said. While that is a lot of money, she said it would be far more expensive to work on each block of Peace Portal Drive individually, in piecemeal fashion. “To do one block, because there’s so much more loss of efficiency when you’re doing a small project, would cost more than $100,000,” she said.

If the project gets a green light from city council, the problem trees will be chopped down to the stump, and each stump will then be ground down and covered with stamped concrete or pavers similar to the material on the H Street plaza.

“Instead of trees, we will put in very nice, tall, decorative pots with seasonal greens and flowers,” Whitewolf said. “We haven’t picked the design of those pots yet. We’ve been evaluating a few different kinds.”

There will still be small trees on Peace Portal Drive – just not maple trees. “There would still be trees at the sides of the intersections,” Whitewolf said. “In between the intersections, instead of having bricks that are failing and trees that are pulling up sidewalk panels, there will be eye-level greens and flowers in decorative pots sitting on the concrete.”

The project is now up in the air following a projected decrease in the city’s tax revenue due to COVID-19 border restrictions and the governor’s stay-home order. The project may not happen this year, Whitewolf said. “Our current capital budget is not enough to do it,” she said. “Happening this year without some infusion of stimulus or other street funding is not necessarily a guarantee, although we are hopeful that when the border opens up, we will be in a position to do something.”

Whitewolf said that the decision to remove the trees was very difficult, but that her department faced various constraints. “If the right of way were wider and we didn’t have the businesses and buildings immediately on top of the sidewalk, or if we were able to widen the sidewalk by removing parking, I would have had more room to work with,” she said. “Because of the right of way, and because parking is limited on the weekends – or at least it used to be – we really did not see those other remedies as practical.”

Prior to making this decision, the city consulted with a professional arborist, whose initial recommendation was to prune the problem trees. However, this would have only slowed the problem, not solved it, Whitewolf said.

At the April 13 council meeting, councilmember Alicia Rule expressed some concerns. “A planter is fine but it’s definitely not the same as a downtown treescape,” she said. “I completely understand the seriousness of it, and it needs to be dealt with, but I’m just wondering if there are any other options.” Rule continued, “I don’t think a planter is ever going to replace a tree-lined street. If we have to go that direction, we have to go that direction, but I hope that we’ve explored all the options.”

Mayor Bonnie Onyon added, “I don’t know what the answer is, or even whether planters are the answer, but I think having [trees] on the corners gives enough of a feeling of trees. And believe me, I love street trees, I really do. But they’re so problematic in a downtown, more so than when you plan a neighborhood street or an arterial street and you plan for them and you get the right kind of tree. That’s a little different, but downtown has always been a problem.”

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