If this tree could talk, it would be sing-shouting everyone’s favorite Village People line:
The live oak tree growing in front of Khun Kay Thai Cafe, at West Clay and Montrose, stands with its branches split overhead, in a perfect Y. Situated between the narrow stretch of sidewalk and the busy street, with power lines overhead, it has done its best to grow where it’s planted. But the constraints of living along a major thoroughfare are clear to any passerby who peels their eyes from the sidewalk long enough to see those arms, forever paused in a big, bold Y from years of hack-job pruning to make way for those power lines.
It’s the perfect metaphor for what’s been going on. Over the past couple weeks, I’ve heard a lot about the trees that line this particular part of Montrose Boulevard. You probably have, too. Plans for a $28 million project that will redo the stretch of Montrose Boulevard between Allen Parkway and this intersection at West Clay have drawn increasing criticism as neighbors raise concerns about these trees situated along the road.
This tree, in front of Khun Kay, will be removed as part of the plan, along with 56 other trees, including 14 that are “mature” — a move that would obviously mobilize the inner Lorax in all of us. But a lot of the project’s nuance has been lost as two sides have emerged in the debate: Those who seemingly want to save trees, and those who seemingly want to expand sidewalks.
By pitting walkability against trees, we’ve allowed the conversation to center around a false dichotomy.
After several days talking to neighbors on “both sides” of the issue, I laced up my trusty “Boots on the Ground” boots for a morning stroll so I could get a lay of the land. I learned that this issue cannot be accurately summed up by two sides, like a leaf. It’s rounder than that; more complex.
And the proposed solution, it seems, is also more complex than the way it’s been framed at protests, counter protests and online. The construction plan effectively solves the problems Montrose Boulevard has been facing, while still offering both new sidewalks and more trees. It’s just hard to hear that through all the noise.
A petition, circulated on www.change.org, has garnered more than 5,000 signatures from folks who believe the neighborhood should preserve its mature trees, and the local tax increment reinvestment zone (TIRZ) should reconsider its sidewalk-widening plans to maintain the current shade canopy.
Had I not walked this path, I can picture myself being swayed by such a matter-of-fact argument. If you’ve read any of my previous Boots on the Ground columns, you know I firmly believe that we need more shade in this city. But this is where nuance, and — for lack of a better phrase — “walking the walk” matter.
In the two-block stretch between Clay and Allen, there is a long swath of sidewalk that currently has no shade canopy. Even on an early October morning, after this recent stretch of soul-balming rain, the sun beat hot on myself and Landing photojournalist Anto Tavitian as we walked the most northern leg of our journey, along the property where the nation’s first Ismaili Center is currently being constructed.
That will change with the current plan, which proposes replacing the 57 dug-up trees with 137 new ones. As of now, 13 trees currently stand on the east side of this block. Twelve are currently alive; one is dead. All the trees are cedar elms, between 6 and 10 inches wide at the part of the trunk that stands chest high on a human. According to the plan, these trees will have to be uprooted to shift the roadway east in order to construct a sidewalk on the west side of the street, where there currently is none.
The west side will then see 40, 3.5-inch bald cypress trees planted in the place of the three post oak trees that have been forced to grow into awkward shapes, through cracked concrete, twisting and bending to reach the sky. And along the east side, 37 new 3.5-inch bald cypress trees will be planted.
At an average growth rate of 1 to 2 feet a year, these trees should offer significant shade cover in just a few years. While opponents of the plan have cited concerns about whether the bald cypress trees can live to maturity in Houston’s extreme climate, proponents note that the same trees have been thriving around the corner on Allen Parkway.
It’s that west side of Montrose between Allen and Clay that truly revealed its needs to me along this walk. That’s because I couldn’t even walk it. Anto and I discussed whether it was worth chancing an inclined scramble for the sake of this piece. But it’s too dangerous on a street like Montrose, where a traffic study shows the average speed of passing cars is 45 miles per hour, and we all know pedestrians are treated as an afterthought by the many Houston drivers.
The plan calls for the west side of the block to see a 6-foot sidewalk, then a 5-foot planting buffer, which will become home to those trees, then the road. Across the street, the sidewalk will span 10 feet wide so it can share use with cyclists; this side will also have a 5-foot tree-lined buffer, then the road.
Jonna Hitchcock, one of the authors of the change.org petition, asked me during a phone conversation last week, why we need 10-foot wide sidewalks. Who needs that much space?
Many of the current sidewalks are a lot thinner than 10 feet, that’s for sure. For most of our walk, as we looked down, Anto and I estimated the sidewalks measure at about 4 feet wide — maximum. But anyone who’s ever walked along Houston’s streets — let alone streets with our beautiful live oaks — knows that many of the edges of our sidewalks are often covered with debris like leaves and acorns, along with dirt. The usable ribbons of cement often narrow down into 2-foot pathways.
Have you ever tried navigating that with a stroller? I have. In my neighborhood, I’ve given up on the sidewalks, choosing instead to walk in the streets, where I have to spend less time lifting the stroller to carry it over or around obstacles.
You can’t do that on Montrose.
Earlier this week, I spoke with parents of children at Wharton Dual Language Academy on Clay, just a block east of Montrose. Mehdi Rais, a parent, told me about times his children — and the neighbor kids they often walk with to school — have held up signs on their walk to Wharton, pleading with passing cars to slow down for their safety.
Walking with young kids, Rais points out, isn’t best done as a single-file activity. Parents want their eyes on all their kids, and their arms always in reach. By expanding the width of the sidewalks to accommodate these larger groups, and creating a buffer between the sidewalk and school-time traffic, this project will increase safety for the children who live in the area.
And this is where the false dichotomy really feels like a forced fork — one that resembles that YMCA tree I passed in my very first steps along this journey. As I’ve heard the need for trees pitted against the need for sidewalks, there’s been one through line in the chorus: Both sides invoke the needs of future generations.
One side says: Chopping down trees is bad for the next generation, who need to live in a world we’ve made all-too susceptible to disasters rooted in climate change.
The other side says: Adding sidewalks that are actually usable for pedestrians of all ages and ability will reduce the need for cars, and therefore help our world be more climate-change resistant.
And both sides are right. We need trees. We need sidewalks. We need to stop allowing our branches to split and divide until we all look like sad, mistreated trees forced to do the YMCA in perpetuity. We need to stop and listen and walk. We need to read all the way through a plan before we make knee-jerk assumptions.
If you read through the Montrose plan for this stretch of road, you will see that yes, many mature trees will be removed as a result of this construction. But if you keep reading — and you take a few minutes to walk the path on your own — you’ll see we haven’t allowed these trees to live their best lives these past 40 years. The new trees that will be planted will outnumber those being removed — 137 to 57 — and they will be planted with purpose, allowing them to grow without unnecessary splits and divisions.