Nothing bestirs Santa Barbarans like trees, except perhaps historic landmarks, both of which collide at the corner of Micheltorena and State streets, where the coral trees have grown tall and heavy with a potential for “spontaneous catastrophic failure,” or limbs falling without warning.
When in bloom, the trees provide a vibrant orange-red glow to the graceful courtyard outside Village Properties, an aspect the public loves and past gardeners may have tended a little too well. Overwatering caused the coral trees, native to arid South Africa, to grow dangerously pulpy and unstable. In the adjacent parking lot, a lack of water is causing the lemon-scented gum eucalypti to suffer. Both conditions have prompted the owner, Grafskoy Hindeloopen Limited, to petition the Historic Landmarks Commission, which weighs in on all properties in downtown’s El Paseo Viejo, to allow the corals to be replaced with magnolia trees. The commission so far has not agreed.
At the latest of three meetings, the first of which was held in September 2015, the commissioners asked Bob Cunningham, a landscape architect and agent for Grafskoy, to consider replacing the six existing trees (Erythrina caffra) with a different species of bright-red-blooming coral trees that isn’t prone to losing its limbs. In Grafskoy managing director Marc Winnikoff’s project letter, he explained that in the three years the company had owned the property, “random” catastrophic limb and trunk failures have occurred. Neither the building tenants nor the public could be admitted to the garden because of the unpredictable branch falls as well as the uneven brickwork lifted by the corals’ roots. Cunningham’s suggestion was to replace three with magnolias now, let them grow, and replace the other three in a few years.
HLC member Steve Hausz observed that though magnolias are equally beautiful, public statements made it clear the coral trees, which were likely planted in the mid-70s, were cherished: “Magnolias don’t have the same mystery and magic that the coral trees have.” The HLC also asked Cunningham for a site plan showing the new plantings under the trees and a maintenance program to show the six new trees will be cared for properly.
For the parking lot, where the replacement of trees is uncontroversial, a brisk discussion argued for and against replacing the asphalt with permeable pavers and whether that would help water the trees without root eruptions to the surface. A consensus was forming until it was pointed out that the landowner did not intend to replace the entire lot, just the trees. The 27 lemon eucs (Corymbia citriodora) — which the arborist’s report stated could be in their “mortality spiral” based on sparse canopies, dead wood, and possible rot — are to be replaced with several different types of tree from palms to Brisbane box, atlas cedar, and golden medallion for greater disease resistance through species variety.
Neither the 10 public written comments that came in to support the existing trees, nor the landowner, nor the commissioners received any satisfaction at the November 15 meeting. They return to renegotiate on December 13.