If A Tree Falls In Downtown...

While our Bradford Pears have been decimated, new trees are sprouting

There are a lot of sounds in the cacophony of downtown. Sirens, buses, garbage trucks, demolition and construction are just some of the notes that form the soundtrack of the city. Chainsaws, not so much. So when a distinctive whine rang down Union Avenue a few weeks ago, it stood out. The city was cutting down five trees in front of the Hotel St. Oliver.

If you talk to David Brace of the city's Public Services Department, or Jeff McCarty, the city's arborist, about downtown trees, you'll hear the term "World's Fair era" in reference to many of them. That's a euphemism for the Bradford Pears and a few other species which were planted in the city's horticultural frenzy to spruce up in time for the millions of visitors the fair was to draw. The Bradfords planted along Union were a part of that era.

"Downtown is a hard spot for trees," says Brace. Concrete canyons and confined parcels of soil aren't the natural environment for trees. Crowded by the man-made environment, our urban forest requires a lot of tending and care. That's where McCarty's expertise comes in. As an arborist, he's the primary caregiver to our city's trees.

Sometimes, their growth causes social ills like blocking traffic signs, and a little trimming can take care of things. But like every living thing, sometimes trees simply reach the end of a healthy life. That's been the case for many trees downtown and has left, over the years, 24 vacant tree wells within the Central Business Improvement District (from the Old City to Volunteer Landing and 11th Street to Hall of Fame Drive), according to a street-by-street count conducted last fall by McCarty. The removal of the Bradfords on Union are on top of that figure.

The Bradford Pear, a non-native import from Korea and China, was once hailed by landscapers and urban planners as the perfect street tree. But over time, that assessment proved to be wrong. The tree's physiology and structure make it very susceptible to the elements. And, along with their other issues, Bradfords are no longer considered a good fit for an urban setting.

"The plight of Bradford Pears downtown has been an ongoing discussion item at many Tree Board meetings," according to Kimberly Davis, chair of the Knoxville Tree Board, an advisory organization established in 1992 to accompany the Tree Ordinance passed by City Council around the same time. And the city has been working since around 2001 toward better alternatives.

Despite the whine of the chainsaw, help is on the way. This year promises a substantial restoration of downtown trees.

"Knoxville is one of five Tennessee cities with ‘Tree City USA' designation from the National Arbor Day Foundation," according to Sean Vasington, senior associate at Carol R. Johnson and Associates (CRJA), a landscape architecture and environmental planning company with offices in Boston and Knoxville. As part of CRJA's 50th anniversary celebration, it has partnered with Moon's Tree Farm of Georgia "to help ensure Knoxville's designation endures" by making a donation of dozens of trees to the city.

CRJA has worked closely with the Legacy Parks Foundation to establish implementation guidelines for the Legacy Trees Fund, with the initial focus of the newly formed program being downtown Knoxville.

According to Brace, nearly all of the vacant tree wells downtown, including those on Union, will see new plantings this year. The various species selected, while not totally native, conform to the recommendations supported by the Tree Board for their various applications. And McCarty assures that the firm contracted for the plantings employs an arborist to see that they are properly located for their species.

Some locations, however, remain in question. And removal, rather than replacement, is being considered. For example, one of the pair of trees closest to the Market Square stage had to be removed last year due to damage, leaving an empty well.

John Craig, of the Market Square District Association, has been in informal talks with the organization and the city's Public Works department about the situation. According to Craig, "Most of the feedback we have gotten is that it would be better to remove the remaining tree closest to the stage and place either historical markers or some other decorative paving. The feeling is that this would improve the sight lines and open up the area around the stage."

I'm not sure those Bradford Pears along Union were very happy anyway. They pushed away from the St. Oliver and randomly dropped limbs on the street. According to McCarty, they're more suited to open spaces like parks, and those were well into their senior years under any circumstances.

As it turns out, just as the noise of demolition has preceded the noise of construction around town recently, so too the sound of the chainsaw was just another harbinger of further renewal in the center city. And I guess that whine fits in fine with the chorus of car alarms, street preachers, and delivery trucks that contribute to the soundtrack of downtown.