Update: Full story can be found here.
A city official is defending allowing the Baltimore Grand Prix to cut down trees along the Inner Harbor race course, saying organizers have agreed to replace those trees nearly four times over, more than tripling the downtown's tree canopy in the process.
Beth Strommen, director of Baltimore's Office of Sustainability says she negotiated a deal with organizers of the Labor Day weekend street race, in which they got to cut down fewer than half the trees they originally wanted to remove to improve spectators' views of the racing.
Only 50 trees are to be cut down along the race course on West Pratt and Light streets, said Strommen - not the 136 that Lonnie Fisher, assistant Grand Prix general manager had told The Baltimore Sun on Monday. Strommen, who spoke by telephone while vacationing in New Jersey, said she could not explain the discrepancy, but said she had confirmed the city's agreement with the race by phone Tuesday.
News of the tree cutting has upset some residents, who contend that it violates the city's forest conservation code (Article 7, Natural Resources) and is at odds with the city's sustainability plan, which calls for doubling Baltimore's tree canopy by 2037.
Critics have begun circulating an online petition calling for a halt to any more race-related tree cutting until the plan is fully aired and each tree to be removed identified, as required by city code. Petition drafter Dave Troy contended in an email that the plan for cutting and replacing trees because of the race was "haphazard" and "shoved down the throat of the public without due process."
Strommen said the deal she'd negotiated with race organizers hasn't been announced yet because it has yet to be finalized, reviewed by city lawyers and signed. But it calls for planting 59 replacement trees in the race corridor, she said, and another 135 trees are to be planted in already empty sidewalk "pits" for trees elsewhere in downtown.
Strommen said she has been hashing out tree removal and replacement with race organizers for months and had expected to unveil the plan next week when she returned to Baltimore from vacation.
Baltimore Grand Prix managers could not be reached yesterday evening to confirm the terms of the deal Strommen described.
Strommen said the city agreed to allow the removal of some trees that would block views of the street action from temporary grandstands to be erected along the race course. But she said the city exacted a price in additional trees to be planted elsewhere.
"They had their needs to sell tickets," she said. "We had our needs to preserve the beauty of downtown and make Pratt Street continue to be a main street in a great downtown area."
Strommen acknowledged that some of the trees cut bordering the federal courthouse were "big and healthy," as critics have complained. But she said others, particularly those near the convention center, were in decline because they did not have adequate space to grow and their roots were constantly trampled by pedestrians.
The trees to be replanted along the race course will be relocated, Strommen said, to spots where they won't be in the way of spectators in future years, as the city has a deal to host the Grand Prix for up to five years. And 14 of them around the courthouse will be planted in specially designed, oversized planters, she said, to test the viability of having movable trees.
Beyond replacing the trees cut along the race course, Strommen said she got race organizers to agree to plant 135 additional trees in every empty spot in the sidewalk downtown where a tree used to be or was intended to grow. Some details, such as the mix of trees to be planted, have yet to be nailed down, she said, but all the trees are to be planted this fall or within the next year, more than tripling the number of trees downtown.
"I'm feeling pretty good about getting every tree pit downtown filled, myself" said Strommen.
UPDATE: People continue to debate the removal of trees around the Inner Harbor to accommodate the Baltimore Grand Prix on Labord Day weekend, but city officials are speaking up to defend it.
Ryan O'Doherty, spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, noted in an email that the tree canopy downtown is increasing under the plan worked out by the city. And William H. Cole IV, the City Council member who represents downtown, called it a "net gain" for trees downtown and said all but a handfull of the trees being removed for the race have already been cut or relocated.
"This wasn’t something that just happened yesterday," Cole said in a telephone interview. "This has been a very deliberate process." He said he and Strommen and race reperesentatives "walked every single block and looked at every single tree and made a comprehensive list of everything that could not be touched."
Cole said the Downtown Partnership was actively involved in the planning, and he pointed out that the downtown business group has been removing and replanting trees along Pratt for some time now as it removes berms along the street. A Downtown Partnership official declined to discuss the tree issue, referring a reporter to the Grand Prix. Its top officers have yet to return repeated phone calls.
Dave Troy, a software entrepreneur who is circulating the online petition against the race-related tree-cutting, said he's still bothered by the way in which the cutting was done. He questioned why the city didn't release the plan, even in draft form, so the public could see and comment on it before it was a fait accompli, and he insisted that race organizers and city officials be held accountable if the trees were removed without following the city's own forestry code.
"Trees are not fungible," said Troy. "You can't exchange one set of trees for another."
(Trees being cut across from Convention Center. Baltimore Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr.)