City votes to proceed with Magnolia Ave. paving project

View down Magnolia Ave near El Cerrito where some liquidambar trees are tagged for removal.

Despite concerns that the process is moving too quickly and without enough public involvement, the City Council Monday night voted to spend about $2 million to repave and otherwise improve three sections of streets this summer.

The 5-0 council vote was accompanied by a pledge to meet with Magnolia Avenue residents in mid- to late May to help possibly identify more liquidambar trees that could be saved. Forty-seven trees are slated for removal as part of the paving project.

Council members also pledged to be more open to replacing the felled liquidambar trees with a wider variety of species than first envisioned. The city earlier this year had bought some Chinese pistache trees as replacements for the Magnolia Avenue liquidambars.

The contract with Oakland-based Gallagher & Burk Inc. calls for repaving three stretches of city street: Craig Avenue between Highland Avenue and Mountain Avenue; Annerley Road from Harvard Road to Portsmouth Road; and Magnolia Avenue from Hillside Avenue to Nova Drive. Sidewalks and bicycle throughways will also be remade on those streets, and crosswalk safety improvements are planned at the intersection of Craig and Highland concurrent with the repaving.

The pavement project contract itself is for $1,729,462. The rest of the money will go to a 10 percent contingency fund and construction management and inspection.

Few deny the need for the paving work. Chester Nakahara, Piedmont’s public works director, said Monday that pavement condition index rating for heavily used Magnolia is 40 (out of 100), 19 on Craig and 7 on Annerley. Piedmont’s average PCI rating, he said, is 63.

The importance of moving fast on the paving project was acknowledged by council members. That work has already been delayed by an unrelated utility project. Getting the work done over the summer, while school is out and school-related traffic is at low ebb, is a key goal, and that timeline remains in effect.

But the associated tree-removal plan for Magnolia Avenue has come under more fire. At a May 1 Piedmont Park Commission meeting, a group of Magnolia residents questioned not only the timing and scope of the planned tree removals, but also how the city communicated with them about the removal plan.

And Monday night, residents reiterated these concerns to the City Council. Several said the process has been hasty and didn’t involve the neighbors nearly enough.

“We’ve rushed to judgment on the tree removal project with very little public input,” Carole Parker told the council Monday night.

Nova Ave. resident Mary Wells addresses city council members at May 6 meeting.

Mary Wells said the “dark side” of tree removal — less shade, hotter temperatures inside houses, the aesthetic  concerns — have gotten short shrift.

“For those of us who walk up and down the street every day, this seems incredibly rushed,” Wells said.

The merits of removing the trees were also laid out Monday. Most of these trees are in less-than-healthy condition; Darya Barar, an urban forester with Berkeley-based Hortscience, said many of the liquidambar trees (also known as sweetgums) along Magnolia are in poor condition.  Of the 47 trees earmarked for removal to accommodate the street and sidewalk project, 35 were rated as unhealthy or with significant problems. The 2-foot-wide strip between the curb and sidewalk where most of them are growing “just isn’t enough space or them to flourish,” Barar told the council.

The tree roots have themselves done significant damage to sidewalks and curbs. Nakahara said sidewalks can be built to give the roots a certain amount of leeway, but added that trimming the tree roots enough to enable building safe sidewalks is often a “death sentence” for that tree.

The weakened trees also present a safety hazard, some said Monday night, with falling branches a constant danger. Brandt Kwiram, a  resident at Hillside Avenue and Magnolia, told the council a falling limb totalled a neighbor’s car. He wants weak trees removed in any event.

“If one of those trees drops a branch on one of my three children, the lawsuit against the city will be expensive,” Kwiram said,

Nakahara stressed that the city doesn’t take lightly the removal of these, or any, trees. He suggested a mid- to late May walking tour of the trees to reassess which ones might be spared. Councilwoman Betsy Smegal Andersen agreed with that, and made a “friendly amendment” to a motion to approve the paving and tree removal contract to include a pledge to work with Magnolia residents on ways to save as many trees as possible.

Both Andersen and Councilmember Tim Rood expressed dismay about how late in the paving process the tree discussion came up. Vice Mayor Teddy Gray King said the “wholesale removal of trees” hasn’t been adequately addressed, and Rood also asked city staff why the project first came to the council after the bid process was completed.

“I have a problem with the process that got us here tonight; I think the process is broken,” Rood said.

In the end, the council decided the paving process must move forward now, as construction costs will only go up if the work is delayed. And though the council approved a plan that will mean many trees will be cut down, the city has agreed to take another look at whether at least a few of those trees can be spared using creative means.

Mayor Robert McBain said the liquidambar trees haven’t prospered in the environment they’re in, and that planting a different, more resilient species along Magnolia will be good for Piedmont in the long run.

“It’s updating, improving, maintaining the urban forest,” McBain said.

Reach Sam Richards at

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