In a region that’s often blanketed with trees, the cutting down of nine in Anchorage's Town Square Park early Thursday morning brought sharp rebukes from tree experts and park regulars, but relief from those who said the dense evergreens created a hidden nest of illegal activity, where everything from a rape to vicious fights went down.
After the thinning out of the park’s “notorious” northeast corner, police on Friday handcuffed two men for a marijuana sale that could have happened in secret two days before.
A skateboarder with tears in her eyes asked the officers: What happened to the trees? When they were lit up for Christmas she and her late father used to walk among them, she said.
“They’re tearing down memories,” said the 21-year-old, tears streaming down her cheeks, who said she goes by the name Siren.
“Yeah! Save the trees!” shouted someone in a nearby group of hacky-sackers.
Inside The Kobuk gift shop -- the only building in the park and located within earshot of the old trees -- the response was different.
Co-owner Nina Bonito Romine had originally wanted the trees limbed several feet off the ground to improve visibility. But the chopping down was fine too.
“I have to tell you I’m glad they’re gone,” she said. “The breaking point for me was the rape that occurred two years ago. That was right under those trees.”
She’s seen blood splattered on the patio from a stabbing, piles of human waste, discarded needles and people beaten on the ground with longboards during fights. It had gotten so bad that last summer she wouldn’t let customers sit on the patio to enjoy tea and coffee. She feared for the safety of her employees.
“We love the park and a lot of people worked hard to get it. But it’s still just as beautiful -- and now it’s safer,” she said.
Plenty of trees remain at the block-sized park, created 49 years ago and now existing under a charter that limits what changes can be made there, advocates said. It’s a green island amid concrete and traffic. Supporters said the nine spruce trees were special – in 1991 people spent $500 to plant the memorial trees to honor loved ones, said Nickel La Fleur, historian for the Anchorage Garden Club and a certified arborist.
“What pisses me off most of all -- I’m a tree lover and a nerd and I know it -- but what makes me most mad was that the public process was ignored,” she said.
She’d been involved in a park planning session just days earlier -- last Saturday -- when scores of people offered ideas on improving the park. Mayor Dan Sullivan and Anchorage Parks and Recreation Director John Rodda had been there and thanked people for participating. Neither said anything about the trees coming down, she said. Rodda admitted he may have made a mistake not talking about the option. He’d had it in mind, but said he didn’t have a specific plan.
“Maybe it’s my fault, I admit it, but I honestly didn’t think about it while I was there,” Rodda said. There was lot of talk about crime, something he’d been hearing for years, and he was focused on listening to the complaints, he said.
When he got into the office early that week, he said he decided something had to be done. “We’re not trying to denude the park at all, this is about public safety,” he said. “I heard it loud and clear on Saturday.”
The Anchorage Downtown Partnership, which had helped organize the planning session, sent the mayor a grateful letter after the trees came down.
The "notorious" northeast corner has been a “red zone for illegal and undesirable activity” for years, the letter said. It was “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.”
On Friday afternoon, a contracted tree crew came and went after grinding up stumps. A few people dozed in the sun where there had once been shade. Raked-over patches of dirt and wood chips remained in spots. A short decorative railing had been newly installed along the concrete bench where the rape occurred two years ago.
Two trees that had been marked for death with pink ribbons still stood, because they had migratory bird nests in them, Rodda said. Because of limitations with the Migratory Treaty Bird Act, they can’t come down until late July.
Could those perhaps be spared? “We’re going to take a look at it and see what the results of this effort have been,” he said.
John Blaine, a longtime advocate of the park who also attended the Saturday planning session, said he was most angry at “the contempt that this action has shown to the public that loves town square.”
There was no consultation or public process, he said.
“It just makes you feel like, what’s the use? What’s the use of having a planning session and inviting people to come to it when the people in authority have no respect for people who care about the park?”
The trees should have been pruned and limbed, not totally removed, he said.
He saw the two spruce with the ribbons. If those come down, too, he doesn’t know what he’ll do, he said.
“It would truly have a major negative impact on the park,” he said.