Backlash halts plan to remove trees by old Federal Building

Devin Kelly
Bob Hallinen

A surge of community concern saved a pair of old spruce trees near the historic Old Federal Building along Fourth Avenue in downtown Anchorage on Thursday.

The trees were supposed to be chopped down Friday to make way for crews to start working on a large-scale exterior upgrade project for the building, which will include fresh paint. The spruces flank a bristlecone pine, which officials said was to be trimmed and pruned back but preserved for its historical significance.

But by late Thursday afternoon, a crescendo of concerned calls and questions prompted officials to put the changes on hold, at least for now.

"We received numerous inquiries about the project and determined that we need an opportunity to educate the community," Stephanie Kenitzer, spokeswoman for the U.S. General Services Administration, wrote in an email.

The GSA now plans to conduct "additional community outreach" about the project, Kenitzer wrote, though she did not specify what form the outreach would take or what the timeline would be.

The gear-shift came as a relief to those alarmed by the plans, which included people who work in and around the Old Federal Building and members of the Anchorage horticultural community. Some called the offices of Alaska legislators, imploring for intervention.

"Do you take an action with an ax or an action with pruners?" asked Barbara Baker, co-president of the Alaska Master Gardeners of Anchorage, before learning of the postponement.

The tree removal was planned as part of a $2 million landscaping and maintenance project planned for the Old Federal Building, Kenitzer said. Originally constructed between 1939 and 1940, the Fourth Avenue complex was the first large federal building in Anchorage and an early symbol of the federal government in the two decades before statehood.

Officials said, however, that the building has been deteriorating. On Thursday, building manager Roger McCleskey pulled out what he called his "show-and-tell box." It was filled with pieces of concrete and large patches of peeled paint, evidence of a crumbling structure.

McCleskey also held up a photo of water damage and said water has permeated the ceiling tiles and dripped onto desks.

The GSA has been waiting "for some time" for the funding to do the project, Kenitzer said.

"Unfortunately," she said in a phone interview earlier in the day, "those trees need to come down to make that all happen."

She said new trees were to be planted in place of the spruces, in addition to other landscaping renovations. But the backlash mounted rapidly as word of the plans spread.

Margaret Anderson, who works downtown and frequently visits the building, said she didn't want to see the trees removed.

"They're extremely aesthetically pleasing," Anderson said. "I know they provide shade and respite from the sun in front of that building when all the visitors are there eating hot dogs and spreading picnic blankets out."

In front of the building Thursday, Michael Anderson, who runs the popular stand MA's Gourmet Hot Dogs, said he's "not for it."

"There's no way you could tell me (the trees) need to go," he said, looking up at the spruces while cooking up a batch of onions.

Baker, of the Alaska Master Gardeners of Anchorage, said she was concerned that the removal of the two spruces would jeopardize the health of the bristlecone pine. The State Historic Preservation Office has indicated that the bristlecone pine was a gift from the Japanese government, giving it historic value, said Joanne Welch, the manager of the Anchorage Alaska Public Lands Information Center.

Welch has worked in the building for 23 years and said the two spruce trees have always been there. In the building's halls, she said, she overheard snippets of nostalgia.

"Someone was saying, 'There's probably been a thousand hot dogs eaten under those trees,'" she said.

Tree-cutting has been a particular bone of contention this spring as government plans clash with those of locals lobbying for the preservation of the natural environment. The controversy over the Old Federal Building trees seemed to hint at a sensitivity heightened in the aftermath of the early May removal of nine spruce trees from the municipality's Town Square Park.

"You know, change is hard for everybody," Welch said, just before learning about the postponement. "And people grow fond of their trees."