Troublesome trees spark an image overhaul in L.A.

Hard-to-keep palms will be phased out

November 26, 2006|By New York Times News Service

LOS ANGELES -- The palm tree, like so much here, rose to fame largely because of vanity and image control, then met its downfall when the money ran out.

The Los Angeles City Council, fed up with the cost of caring for the trees, with their errant fronds that plunge perilously each winter, and with the fact that they provide little shade, has declared them the enemy of the urban forest and wishes that most would disappear.

The city plans to plant a million trees of other types over the next several years so that, as palms die off, most will be replaced with sycamores, crape myrtles and other trees indigenous to Southern California. (Exceptions will be the palms growing in places that tourists, if not residents, demand to see palmy, like Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards.)

The department that supplies trees at the request of Los Angeles residents no longer offers palms, and the Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction project, which includes 1,000 new trees, will feature a mere 40 palms.

By slowly pushing out the palm, Los Angeles joins Miami and other maturing cities that have determined that they can live without their youthful indulgence.

"They are iconic," conceded Josh Kamensky, the spokesman for Eric Garcetti, the council president. "They are also really bad for our city."

Of the various varieties of palms, none is really indigenous to Los Angeles. In the mid-20th century, land barons relocating to Los Angeles and Hollywood from the East decided that palm trees denoted the easy life and began planting them at their homes and offices, said Leland Lai, the president of the Palm Society of Southern California, a research group that supports keeping the city lined with palms.

Hotels and housing subdivisions came next, and the state's transportation authority planted the trees on public parkways "because they decided they were easy, fast growing and don't need a lot of water," Lai said.

But as it turns out, palm trees, particularly Mexican fan palms, feature big, spiky fronds that fall off the trees in the Santa Ana winds that sweep through in the winter. The palms conk cars, and occasionally pedestrians, city officials said.

Palms are hard to care for, so hard that the city has a line in its tree-trimming budget just for them. Proper care dictates an expense of about $630,000 per year, said Nazario Sauceda, the assistant director of the bureau of street services in the city's Department of Public Works.

Many of the trees planted in the 1950s "are getting toward the end of their lives," Lai said. "Some are 80 to 100 feet high and 70 years old, and these are not self-cleaning palms," which means they need maintenance to remove old fronds.

Last year, the city removed nearly 8,000 cubic yards of dried palm fronds from the public right of way, said Sauceda.

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