Rosa Meehan: City's Town Square tree-cutting breaks faith with residents

Erik Hill

The Festival of Flowers is missing a key participant this year - the Master Gardeners withdrew their participation due to the May Day logging of several large trees in Town Square Park.

Removing the trees as a public safety measure resulted in an abrupt change to the park and a slap in the face to long-standing community interest and involvement in Town Square. Just days before the trees were cut, Mayor Dan Sullivan provided opening remarks at a public planning meeting about the future of Town Square, and John Rodda, director of City Parks and Recreation, attended the meeting.

Facilitated by Sheila Selkregg, the April 26 meeting marked the beginning of a yearlong community effort dedicated to "creative place making" in Anchorage. The goal of the meeting was to produce design criteria for the park that incorporated the concerns and perspectives of all users.

Despite attending the meeting, and hearing public interest and advocacy for the trees, John Rodda said nothing at the time andremarked later that the pending logging had "slipped his mind." Were there other options to addressing the public safety concerns? Of course, but a quick chainsaw eliminated all of those.

A bit of history -- Town Square began with a 1965 election initiative that designated "Block 42" as open space, rather than a proposed a parking garage. In the intervening years, concepts for the park developed and the Friends of Town Square Park formed to focus community interest in the park. The Friends group, with other partners created a fundraising mechanism that allowed the community to invest in the park. In 1991, donations poured in with the incentives of a brick with your name on it (some 13,000 purchased at $75 apiece) and for trees (100 trees at $500 each).

Profits supported landscaping and design of the park - along with the bricks and trees. Over the years, the Friends group and other partners consistently recommended to the mayor's office that the park be maintained as a breathing space in downtown, a "forecourt to the sun" balanced with a massing of trees for structural relief. The vision simply stated -- a distinct park with an open space character.

One significant outcome of the municipality's tree cutting is the decision by the Master Gardeners to pull out of the Festival of Flowers. For years, the Master Gardeners worked in collaboration with the Downtown Partnership and the municipality to ensure funding for the beautiful displays of flowers that decorate downtown. The Master Gardeners, your friends and neighbors with dirt under their fingernails and beautiful flowers, contributed their time and expertise as part ofthe festival, selling baskets and holding gardening demonstrations. Their presence, expertise and enthusiasm will be missed along with the fund raising.

As for the direct loss of the trees, one simply has to scroll through the images posted online for Town Square Park to get a sense of the loss. The big trees graced in winter with blue lights -- gone. Structure and visual appeal of the park now diminished.

A final insult was that the trees were simply chipped and hauled away. No opportunity to salvage the wood for art construction or any other use. Again, no opportunity for less severe measures, like thinning lower limbs or moving trees.

The biggest loss of all is public faith in government - faith that in the past brought our community together voluntarily to make our city a better place to live.

Rosa Meehan is a member of the Daily News guest editorial board.