About 100 mature trees in the heart of Baltimore would be cut down and replaced with 118 younger trees in a slightly different configuration, if city officials adopt a private group's $18.5 million plan to upgrade the four public squares around the Washington Monument.
The Mount Vernon Place Conservancy plans to raise funds to make the improvements by mid-2015 if the city accepts its restoration plan, including the tree replacement proposal as a key element. The nonprofit group and its design team presented their recommendations Monday to Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, which has legal authority over changes to the city-owned parkland.
Conservancy members say the money would be used to complete work that the city's financially strapped parks department cannot afford. They say the conservancy is a potential model for other public-private partnerships that could be set up to improve and maintain other city parks, such as Druid Hill and Patterson parks.
But several area residents voiced concern Monday about the conservancy's proposal to remove all but one tree in and around the four squares. "Trees are the lungs of our environment," Mount Vernon Place resident Regina Minniss told the panel. "The more we cut them down, the harder it is to breathe."
Cheryl Casciani, another Mount Vernon Place resident, said she was concerned by the amount of time that could pass between the removal of the mature trees and the planting of replacements. Noting that Baltimore's historic districts are filled with vacant lots where older buildings were torn down to make way for replacement projects that never materialized, Casciani urged the panel not to allow any trees to come down until the conservancy shows it has sufficient funds to replace them.
"The last thing we need," she said, "is bare parks."
Trustees of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church voted this month to oppose the project until they get more information about it, including a recommendation to narrow the street that leads to the church, said chairman and president William Green. "Our overwhelming concern is the lack of detail" received so far, he said.
The conservancy's master plan was approved this year by the architectural review committee of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association, whose boundaries include the public squares. But on Monday, the city preservation commissioners took no formal action on the plan, saying they would consider it again at a meeting Oct. 12.
Earlier this year, city officials closed the Washington Monument for repairs after engineers hired by the conservancy warned that the building has structural problems that make it unsafe for visitors.
The master plan for Mount Vernon Place calls for a wide range of improvements to the squares, including new plant beds, new lights, better soil, an eco-friendly underground irrigation system and repairs to street curbs, ballustrades and statues.
Perimeter walkways would be added to make certain park areas more accessible to people in wheelchairs. And if funds are available, planners say, they want all of the streets lining the squares to have brick surfaces, just as the streets lining the east square do now.
Richard Newton, partner in charge of the project for Olin, the Philadelphia design firm hired by the conservancy, said his team wants to restore the best features of the park but also make it functional for the 21st century, with underground utility connections and other amenities that can support a wide range of public events.
In Olin's plan, the one tree that would be spared is a large elm in front of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church. Newton said the design team recommended that the other trees come down so contractors could start fresh with a "world class" landscaping plan, rather than work in a piecemeal fashion.
He noted that many of the existing trees were not planted in large enough tree wells so their roots are exposed, and that broader trenches would be dug for the replacements. He also said the designers want to put cisterns under the squares to store rainwater, and some existing trees are in locations where the tanks would be.
At a community meeting last spring, Newton also said the design team wants to realign the trees to draw more attention to statues and other monuments in the parks. He said Olin wants to restore the tree pattern to a French Classical layout that was evident 100 years ago, when trees were arranged in symmetrical rows that framed formal gardens.
He said at this week's meeting that some trees have been planted more randomly in the years since and now block views to and from key monuments, creating a sense of "visual clutter." He also said some trees are unhealthy, pose a safety hazard to passers-by and should be removed as soon as possible.