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How Many People Will Get Hurt If SF’s Masonic Ave. Redesign Gets Delayed Again?

Opponents of the safety overhaul of Masonic Avenue complain in particular about removing nine trees on a concrete triangle at Masonic and Geary Street, where a plaza with many more trees (shown) will be built. Image: DPW
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Another sorely-needed street safety redesign could be threatened by neighbors protesting the replacement of trees, even though, when all is said and done, the number of trees in the project area will double.

The overhaul of deadly Masonic Avenue could be delayed or altered if the SF Board of Appeals upholds an appeal against tree removal permits at a hearing on Wednesday

The redesign, which was supposed to start construction this summer, was recently delayed by at least six months, the SF Examiner reported earlier this month. The addition of underground utility upgrades to the scope of work pushed back the start of construction to 2016, with the project scheduled for completion a year later.

The Masonic plan requires the removal of 49 trees, 17 of which are unhealthy and "unsafe," and the planting of 185 new trees. It's "a more than three-to-one replacement ratio," Department of Public Works landscape architect John Dennis said in a statement. Overall, the current count of 145 trees will increase to 282.

"In order to construct our project some trees need to be removed and replaced," Dennis wrote in an email blast to supporters of the redesign, encouraging them to urge the Board of Appeals to approve the permits. "This is unfortunate, but a small price to pay in exchange for a safer Masonic Street for all users."

"We have been diligent in our efforts to save existing trees along the corridor," he added.

As with the Van Ness Avenue Bus Rapid Transit project, which 16 speakers protested last week over tree replacements, a handful of neighbors are threatening to slow down the Masonic plan, which has been in the works since 2010. The Masonic tree removal permits were issued in May, but they were appealed by two neighbors.

If the tree appeal does delay the Masonic projects, it will be another case in which the city's appeals system has enabled a small group of people to obstruct or delay a project even after extensive vetting via publics meetings, analysis, and city approvals. All it takes is one appellant to bring a major safety effort to a halt.

Masonic in 2011. Photo: Aaron Bialick

"It shouldn’t be taking this long," D1 Supervisor Eric Mar told the Examiner about the recent Masonic delay, calling the street "a deathtrap." Mar was one of three supervisors who wrote a letter in 2013 calling for approval of a federal grant that funded most of the redesign.

Appellants Curtis Speck and Ariane Eroy wrote in their appeal [PDF] that "we believe it to be a mistake to cut 40+ mature trees," but made no mention of the 185 trees that will be planted.

According to a DPW staff memo, at an initial April hearing on tree removal, "Most of the objections raised pertain to the trees located at the triangle bus stop plaza and median at the south side of the intersection of Masonic Avenue and Geary Street." The "prevailing complaint" from speakers was that they were not made aware of the removals, as they were "not brought up" at community meetings, "as this need was not discovered until later phases of design."

The SFMTA's extensive outreach effort in crafting the redesign was widely lauded when the Masonic plan was approved by the agency's board in 2012.

"Everything is in place," SF Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Noah Budnick told the Examiner this month. "The neighbors have spoken loud and clear. There’s political support for safety improvements, and the funding is in place. It’s time to get it done."

Dennis of DPW told Streetsblog that so far the tree permit appeal has not delayed construction on Masonic, which could start at the beginning of next year.

As for the delay caused by adding utility work, Dennis said that taking the opportunity to replace sewer, water, and Muni overhead wire infrastructure as part of the work on Masonic will "decrease future construction impacts to residents."

The Board of Appeals hearing will take place on Wednesday at 5 p.m. at City Hall, Room 416. Written comments can be emailed to boardofappeals@sfgov.org.

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