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Nine trees cut down in Town Square Park

Devin Kelly

The municipality cut down nine spruce trees in the northeast corner of Town Square this week, a controversial move in an ongoing effort to address public safety issues in the small downtown park.

Officials have said that thinning out the dense grove of trees in the northeast corner of the park improves public safety by offering less seclusion for illegal activities. For more than two years, city officials, law enforcement, local businesses and citizens have explored ways to curb bad behavior and illegal activity in the park.

But the clearing of the trees came as a shock to advocates of the park and members of the gardening community, who said Friday they heard nothing in advance about the plans.

A subcontractor removed the trees between 5:30 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. Thursday, said John Rodda, director of the city Parks and Recreation Department. Eleven trees were originally slated for removal but crews found bird nests in two of them, Rodda said.

Rodda said the park department's decision to remove the trees was developed over the last several months and officials were simply waiting for the ground to thaw to carry it out. He said several of the trees were slightly diseased and should have been removed anyway.

The tree removal was scheduled on Tuesday. Then, on Wednesday, the municipality installed a metal railing along the edge of a concrete planter box in the northeast corner of the park. The railing is intended to deter people from using the box as a bench and deter loitering and other behavior, Rodda said.

The actions were supported by nearby business owners, members of the Anchorage Assembly, the Performing Arts Center and the Anchorage Downtown Partnership, Rodda said

On Thursday, officials with the Downtown Partnership sent a letter to Mayor Dan Sullivan, thanking him for directing the parks department to remove the trees and install the metal railing on the concrete planter.

"For years, this northeast corner has been a red zone for illegal and undesirable activity in Town Square Park," wrote Daniel Mitchell, president of the Anchorage Downtown Partnership, and Chris Schutte, the partnership's executive director.

"It was secluded from both passers-by on the streets and sidewalks adjacent to the Park and from users within the Park, shielded by an overly dense growth of spruce trees. That seclusion created the perfect environment for individuals who wanted to conduct activities without public scrutiny," the letter said.

But the tree removal stirred up backlash among longtime advocates for the park and members of the gardening community, who decried a lack of community notice.

"This is not just a park, this is a green space for us," said Nickel LaFleur, the historian for the Anchorage Garden Club.

LaFleur said the trees were originally planted to acknowledge private donations to the park. In 1991, she said, donors paid $500 to buy a tree, along with a memorial brick.

"Those trees have value," LaFleur said.

The co-president of the Alaska Master Gardeners of Anchorage, Barbara Baker, said she was surprised by the news, and had "no idea" the trees were being cut down.

Meanwhile, John Blaine, an Anchorage real estate agent and community activist who has served on citizen advisory committees for Town Square Park, called the removal of the trees "an act of arrogance."

He said he was particularly disappointed that city officials did not bring up the plans during a well-advertised collaborative design event, or "charrette," held last Saturday. The event, hosted by the University of Alaska Anchorage, brought together dozens of people to discuss the future of the park.

"Apparently they decided they would do this, and it would be easier to explain when it was done than to advise the public," Blaine said, adding that the charrette would have been an "extraordinarily good opportunity" to do so.

Rodda attended part of the Town Square Park event on Saturday. He acknowledged that officials knew about the plan for the upcoming tree removal but didn't mention it. He said that wasn't purposeful.

"I honestly didn't even think about it at the time," Rodda said.

Rodda said there are no plans to cut down more trees but his department plans to inspect the possibility of removing lower tree limbs in the northwest corner of the park.

Reach Devin Kelly at dkelly@adn.com or 257-4314.


By DEVIN KELLY
dkelly@adn.com