Controversy sprouts from trees' removal

Some say Clear Channel altered 1st Mariner Arena site to show off billboards

August 30, 2004|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

When the sawdust settled two Saturdays ago, 16 city-owned trees had been cut down outside downtown Baltimore's 1st Mariner Arena - paid for by a billboard company that has blanketed the arena's facade with signs.

City officials say billboard giant Clear Channel Outdoor did taxpayers a favor by removing the trees because some were sick and the roots of others posed a threat to concrete sidewalks.

But critics say it is an example of the city caving in to a business that is insensitive to the beauty of trees. These arborists see only one reason Clear Channel would pay more than $10,000 to cut down mature trees and replace them with saplings: to give the public a better view of the billboards.

The plan was approved by the Department of Recreation and Parks and embraced by Edwin F. Hale Sr., who chairs 1st Mariner Bank, owns the Baltimore Blast soccer team that plays at the arena and shares arena billboard profits with Clear Channel.

Although the city owns the 42-year-old arena, it did not initiate the landscaping overhaul. Neither did SMG Inc., the company that manages the arena for the city.

The idea, everyone agrees, began with Clear Channel and Hale.

Now city officials are scrambling to explain the process that led to the removal of the trees that once lined Hopkins Place.

"Our general policy, and it's the mayor's policy, is we don't remove live trees unless we have a really good reason to do so," said Connie A. Brown, associate director of parks. "If this was a rare tree or the Wye Oak or something like that, that wouldn't be anything we would consider."

But Joseph Clisham, an Original Northwood resident long involved in caring for Baltimore trees, doesn't buy the city's explanation. He said this incident fits a pattern of tree removal under Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration.

"My impression is they give in wherever there's a little bit of pressure," Clisham said. "If it were me [in the role of city arborist], I would resist if I were in that position. Then I would probably be fired."

Although Brown explained the city's policy on tree removal, he and others in the department were confused about how many trees were chopped down and what motivated the decision.

Jumbled numbers

At first, Brown said, eight trees were cut down. On Tuesday, he put the total at 12. By Wednesday, he said it was 16, although the city permit listed only 12. (A city inspector allowed four more removals based on the trees' conditions.)

At one point Tuesday, a conference call between a reporter and three parks officials devolved into confusion over what condition the trees had been in and how many were removed. Those officials had not visited the arena site since the trees were taken out Aug. 14.

"I really have to see this before I say anything further," said Marion J. Bedingfield, lead inspector in the forestry division and a certified arborist. "I'm a little confused."

Plans by Clear Channel's landscaper show that 16 trees were removed. They include: eight London planes (similar to sycamores) along Hopkins Place, plus five crab apples and three red oaks by the arena. Eight yellowwood saplings were planted in place of the planes. Eleven crab apple saplings will replace the oaks and crab apples.

A tree removal expert who worked on the job estimated some trees were about two stories tall. It could take a decade or more for a yellowwood sapling to grow anywhere near as big as mature planes, said Gary Coleman, associate professor of tree physiology at the University of Maryland.

Times Square effect

Edward T. McMahon, senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, said "common sense" told him that the trees were removed to provide a clear view of the billboards. "The Clear Channel people are now arborists? The billboard people probably are experts in trees: They're very good at cutting them down," he said.

The Urban Land Institute is a nonprofit group that does research on planning, land use and development issues.

Since last year, Clear Channel has put up five billboards on the Baltimore Street facade and one on the Hopkins Place facade. Frames are in place for two more. In all, the city allowed 14 billboards up to four stories tall in hopes of creating a Times Square effect.

"The initial idea [of the landscaping change] was, we wanted to have an environment that was suitable for everybody ... a better overall appearance of everything," said Joseph Kunigonis, a Clear Channel executive. "Anybody saying it didn't need to be done is incorrect," he said.

He said the trees were not removed to showcase the billboards.

Hale also wanted the change, said Dennis Finnegan, 1st Mariner Bank's executive vice president. The bank pays the city $75,000 a year to put its name on the arena and Finnegan said upkeep is important for the bank's image.

"We salute them for what they did," he said of Clear Channel.

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