Oak Tree at Risk (Photo - Tim Martinez).

      Oak Tree at Risk (Photo – Tim Martinez).

      Downtown Pasadena may be losing one of its oldest heritage oak trees located on the Ambassador Gardens development by Insignia City Ventures.

      By Tim Martinez

      This massive tree, which has watched over the growth of our city for two centuries or more, is being killed by the large condominiums built against the tree’s canopy along West Green Street near South Orange Grove Blvd.  Huge limbs have suddenly died off, and it appears that the tree may not survive.

      Not long ago, this venerable old oak was a mighty and healthy tree — a wonderful specimen which harkened back to Pasadena’s earliest years.  It witnessed the days when Green Street was no more than a dirt road, when Orange Grove Blvd. was filled with orchards, and when horses and buggies rambled down country roads into downtown Pasadena.

      For many years, I have admired its tall branches and its massive trunk.  Many times I gazed up at its lush green canopy as I walked, biked, or skateboarded below, and always with a sense of awe.  Then I watched as the construction of the Ambassador Gardens development commenced, so close to the oak tree’s branches.  It seemed that the structure was meant to avoid the oak but I wondered about the damage that went unseen below the surface.

      Affected oak tree located at West Green Street near South Orange Grove Blvd (Photo - Tim Martinez).

      Affected oak tree located at West Green Street near South Orange Grove Blvd (Photo – Tim Martinez).

      Foundations have to be dug for buildings to be built, along with sewer lines and trenches.  As I watched the construction underway I wondered, how many roots must they be slashing through to cut into the earth beneath the oak’s broad canopy?  How much disturbance and damage are they causing to this ancient tree?  It appears we now have our answer.  Whether as a result of cut roots, compacted soil, or some other damage, this oak tree may not survive the injury inflicted upon it.

      How important are such oak trees to our local environment?  Coast live oak trees are a native species and are extremely drought tolerant.  They send their roots deep underground in search of water, making them excellent street trees that do not destroy sidewalks and sewer lines by searching for surface water (as the ficus trees do growing along Green Street.)  A mature oak tree can support more than 300 wildlife species, including insects, pollinators, birds, and mammals.  Oak trees are an ecological community unto themselves, all of which is lost each time we lose an oak tree in our city.

      Pasadena was once a land of abundant oak trees.  John Muir famously spoke of being able to walk from the City of Los Angeles to the northwest San Fernando Valley without ever leaving the shade of an oak.  Many of these oak trees were lost to agriculture and development.  As we continue to gradually lose the remaining oaks which still grow in yards and private properties, unknowing residents often replace them with exotic species that deprive wildlife of the immense habitat value they provide, and which deprive us of the sense of place that historically defined Pasadena.

      Oak trees are supposed to be a protected species in the City of Pasadena, but unfortunately our heritage oak on the Ambassador Gardens development site was not protected sufficiently.  Who is responsible for this damage?  Where was the oversight?  The people of Pasadena deserve answers.

      A truck full of exotic landscaping going into the Ambassador Gardens development site (Photo - Tim Martinez).

      A truck full of exotic landscaping going into the Ambassador Gardens development site (Photo – Tim Martinez).

      Insignia City Ventures should do everything in their power to save this grand old oak tree.  Mitigation should be made for the damages done.  The current landscaping palette seems composed of exotic species of little environmental or cultural value for our great city.  The developers should at the very least landscape this project with local, native California plants in order to attempt to approximate the massive habitat value of the damaged and potentially lost oak tree.  Insignia City Ventures should also plant native oak saplings wherever possible on the property to ensure the next generation of trees thrive upon this once oaken land.

      Following the uproar surrounding the removal of three mature ficus trees on South Lake Avenue, and the non-permitted removal of the two iconic trees in the courtyard of the old Twin Palm restaurant in Old Pasadena, will the citizens of Pasadena now rally to save one of our oldest oak trees?  Will the newly formed group Save Pasadena Trees advocate for our native trees and recognize the habitat value, environmental benefits, and sense of place to which they contribute so much?

      I certainly hope so.  For when the crowds soon gather along Orange Grove Blvd for the start of another Rose Parade, this silent, magnificent tree which has watched over us all will be standing nearby, in desperate need of our help.

      Tim Martinez, a lifelong Pasadena resident, is the Program Administrator for a local land conservancy, and serves on the board of directors of the Arroyo Seco Foundation.

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      1. Alicia says:

        Hi Tim,

        We are also owners of property on the Ambassador campus and had an oak tree adjacent to one of the new developments that was in bad shape. Michael Merle with Flintridge Tree Care was able to bring it back and now it is flourishing.

      2. Craig says:

        So sad. I care for two Oak trees in the parkway of our house in Pasadena and will always remember what an arborist once told me. He said that Oaks thrive in the wilderness, far removed from any human “touch” … so true. I sadly watch as large trucks (mail, trash, TV/movie production, etc.) speed through our neighborhood streets banging the low hanging Oak branches often times damaging the branches and sometimes the entire tree. I’ve complained about this to the city, authorities and other Pasadena organizations and feel (in my own personal experience) that none of them could care any less about these beautiful trees. But I will continue to look after these Oaks (that were probably planted in the 1940s) and remain hopeful that our neighbors, developers and others will do the same throughout the entire city.

      3. jill says:

        My understanding of New Year’s Day at this development……I think one of the residents said that 5 palm trees and 2 magnolia trees had been removed in order to build the grandstands for the parade. And since no one knew that this was a “new’ company selling seats, the seats went largely unsold. Is the company going to replace the trees that they removed so casually?

      4. Steve Naroff says:

        Tim, the Ambassador College closed it’s doors ~20 years ago. The citizens of Pasadena fought with developers for over a decade for what could be developed. The fight was worth it. In my opinion, the 120 approved condo’s and the resulting renovation of the Ambassador Gardens has more benefits than drawbacks. For example, the HOA dues paid by AG residents DIRECTLY supports the vast number of majestic trees that live on the property. Many were recently/professionally trimmed and cared for (and are healthy/happy). Some of the trees located in the garden have perished independent of the construction (drought, disease, etc.). I’ve also seen many trees carefully moved and transplanted. I’m not implying the tree you reference shouldn’t receive care…it should! Nevertheless, it’s important for your readers to understand the upside. Simply letting the defunct Ambassador College fester would have had implications for the trees as well. In my opinion, the plan approved by the City of Pasadena was right-minded and was respectful of the beautiful trees in general.

        • Tim Martinez says:

          Steve, thanks for your comment. My article is not intended to be a criticism of the Ambassador Gardens development in general, but rather an attempt to bring attention to the importance of preserving this wonderful oak tree and other native trees throughout our region. We shouldn’t have to choose between thoughtful development and the preservation of the trees that make Pasadena such a special place to live.

      5. Petrea Burchard says:

        You are so right, Tim. I’m disappointed, to say the least, in how this is being handled. And planting non-natives during a drought is worse than thoughtless.

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