Photo by city of Austin
Tuesday, April 13, 2021 by Sumaiya Malik

Environmental Commission recommends removal of two West Campus heritage trees

The Environmental Commission has recommended the conditional removal of two heritage trees from a property near UT Austin that is being developed as student housing.

The 32-inch red oak, in “fair” condition, and a 25-inch pecan tree in poor condition stand on a property at the intersection of Nueces and West 24th Street, a couple of blocks from the university in the University Neighborhood Overlay.

Trees with a trunk diameter of 24 inches or more, measuring 4.5 feet above natural grade, are considered heritage trees, according to the city’s Heritage Tree Ordinance, adopted in 2010. Both the red oak and pecan belong to this group.

The property currently houses a two-story building that is home to a Starbucks, a Smoothie King and a parking lot. Developers are proposing a 307-unit student housing project that will include 4,000 square feet of ground-floor retail.

“We believe the trees met the standard for preventing reasonable use of the site,” Steve Drenner of the Drenner Group, representing Lincoln Property, said at the public hearing.

Drenner presented drawings showing a top and three-dimensional view of the considered building layouts and setbacks. Leaving the two trees in place was not a viable option, he said.

“There are significant problems with these trees,” agreed Naomi Rotramel, an arborist for the city.

Michael Folsom, with the Austin Heritage Tree Foundation, opposed the variance for the 32-inch red oak, asking that it be discussed in more detail. He suggested transplanting the tree to Pease Park, which is 12 blocks away, and pruning the tree to resolve its imbalance.

The red oak has significant lean and structural defects, most likely due to storm damage, Rotramel said. She explained that both trees are surrounded by pavement that is cutting off the trees’ tissue growth.

Rotramel recommended removal of both trees due to the applicant demonstrating that the trees prevent reasonable use of the site. She did not recommend transplanting the red oak.

“This case primarily is a reasonable use case and not much on the condition of the trees,” she said. “The trees are smack-dab in the middle of the property.”

Commissioner Pamela Thompson, who voted against the trees’ removal, disagreed.

“It would be much better for the surrounding areas to maybe have a coffee truck, preserve the trees and use it for the cultural benefit of the community,” Thompson said. “The problem is that you want more development on that site than the ecological features will allow.”

“We are asking to follow the code, and the code expressly calls out for the potential removal of a tree,” Drenner said.

“We believe that the mitigation strategies proposed do fulfill a long-term goal of the city,” said Keith Mars, division manager of Community Tree Preservation.

Drenner told the commissioners that the developer has “gone above and beyond any mitigation required for the trees’ removal.”

The developer is proposing $158,000-$188,000 worth of improvements instead of preserving the red oak tree, including planting 14 street trees that will be 5 inches in trunk diameter. Five of the trees will be planted on 24th Street, seven on Nueces Street and two on San Antonio Street.

“Can we suggest less trees but bigger, more substantial trees?” Chair Linda Guerrero said. “Because the loss of canopy and the need for us to maintain the green infrastructure is vital to the area.”

Guerrero was concerned that the 14 trees proposed in the mitigation efforts would take too long to provide the equivalent canopy. “If we are going to remove a heritage tree, we must have the equivalent canopy that is being removed,” she told the Austin Monitor.

With a vote of 6-2-0, commissioners voted to approve removal of the two trees on the condition that the developer offset the carbon footprint of the existing trees with the proposed new trees and continue to work with city arborists to promote faster growth for the young trees. Commissioners Thompson and Richard Brimer voted in opposition.

“I didn’t think the efforts made to mitigate were adequate,” Brimer said.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Environmental Commission: An advisory board to members of the Austin City Council. Its purview includes "all projects and programs which affect the quality of life for the citizens of Austin." In many cases, this includes development projects.

City of Austin Heritage Tree Ordinance: The city ordinance that prohibits the unlicensed destruction of trees greater than 19 inches in diameter.

City of Austin University Neighborhood Overlay (UNO): A set of design guidelines for a portion of the City of Austin that includes the West Campus, North University, and Hancock neighborhood areas.

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