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A Tree, a Billboard and a Parking Lot—A Colorado Boulevard Story

A leading community member makes a tradeoff between a Royal Palm and parking spaces.

For longer than she can remember, Judy Beres has woken up just about every morning and enjoyed a spectacular sight from her backyard: A Royal Palm tree towering gracefully against the Eagle Rock skyline, the scenery somewhat marred by the presence of a giant billboard nearby.

This past Tuesday, for the first time in years, the Royal Palm was missing from Beres’ view. A group of workers had cut it the pervious afternoon to clear the way for an upcoming parking lot.

“I thought there was a small earthquake,” recalled Beres, describing the sound the tree made as it came crashing down on the southwest corner of Colorado Boulevard and Mt. Helena, a short distance from the ramp leading to the 134 Pasadena freeway.

Home for Owls

Beres, who lives on Mt. Helena, said she was devastated. For about a week and half previously, as she tells it, she made frantic appeals to the office of Councilmember José Huizar and to the Audubon Society to try to save the Royal Palm. It wasn’t just the tree’s gorgeous beauty that was at stake, she told Eagle Rock Patch on Wednesday. The palm was also an annual nesting spot for white owls.

But Beres says she was told by both Huizar’s office and the Audubon Society that nothing could be done to keep the Royal Palm from getting axed because it was on a private property and was not a protected species.

Standing some three stories high—markedly taller than the billboard—the Royal Palm inspired her neighbors’ children to draw sketches of the owls, Beres said, adding that a previous attempt to cut the tree earlier this month made the kids cry.

“I'm not necessarily a white owl fan because I have chickens,” Beres said, alluding to the fact that owls prey on other birds. “But I locked them up.”

Montessori Connection

The property where the Royal Palm stood until Sept. 24 is owned by Ute deLara, director of the Eagle Rock Montessori School. Located directly across the boulevard from the parking lot, the school has been a fixture of the Eagle Rock community since deLara founded it in 1975, effectively overseeing the early education of nearly two generations of children from Eagle Rock, Pasadena, Silver Lake and beyond.

“My heart goes out for the tree—I personally would like to save it,” deLara said, looking genuinely concerned when Eagle Rock Patch contacted her on Sept. 19, four days before the Royal Palm was dispatched. “I would like to get rid of the billboard instead,” she added. Now that’s a story to write!”

As deLara tells it, the reason she decided to have the Royal Palm chopped was to make space for about a dozen parking spaces required for a commercial dome-shaped building that she and her husband are getting constructed nearby, just two lots west on Colorado.

Parking Bugaboos

“The city doesn’t yield on parking spaces,” deLara explained last week. “If we lose one parking space, then we possibly can keep the tree. If we lose two parking spaces we cannot do it.” She added: “The reality is we don’t need a permit because it’s not a protected tree.”

As of last week, the school director said she was waiting to hear back from her architect about how many parking spots she would lose if she retained the palm tree. “Yesterday, I e-mailed the architect and said, ‘you’re going to be known as McChopper,’” deLara said, with a laugh.

“If I would not have cut the tree, we would have lost two parking spaces,” deLara told Patch yesterday, Thursday. It is costing her a lot of money to build the parking lot, she added, and it would have cost her considerably more to retain the tree while expanding the parking lot in a manner that satisfies city regulations.

As for the white owls that nest in the tree, they are no longer there at this time of the year, having already raised their young ones, deLara said. Besides, a family that lives two houses from the parking lot up on Mt. Helena is prepared to let the owls stay in the trees in their backyard, she added.

Efforts to Save the Palm

Couldn’t the Royal Palm be relocated elsewhere, especially given that there is quite a demand for this slow-growing ornamental species in California?

She had explored the issue, deLara said. But the tree could not be replanted because its roots were diseased, she added, quoting a landscape company contacted by the contractor working for her on the parking lot project.

To Chop—or Not to Chop

Making a choice between parking spaces and a tree was a real jeopardy for her, deLara emphasized, partly because of the billboard that stands on the very same lot.

The billboard, which came with the lot when deLara bought it years ago, is more than just an eyesore for her: She is paid just $850 a year in rent for it (a smaller billboard on the adjacent lot fetches $20 per month), according to deLara.

“I don’t personally like to have palm trees because they’re not native,” deLara said, underscoring the dilemma she faced for months until last Monday. “But this species in particular is quite attractive—and if we were to take it out, that darned billboard would become so prominent.” (The contract for the billboard runs out in 2014, and deLara said she is planning to get rid of it after that.)

Keeping Colorado Green

As if anticipating criticism for any decision to cut the Royal Palm, deLara pointed out to Patch last week that her Montessori school probably has more trees than any other institutional, commercial or residential area for miles around.

“We have trees everywhere,” she said. “Plus, the parking lot is required to have trees, so we will put trees in there.”

According to deLara, as one of the architects of the Colorado Boulevard Specific Plan, she helped ensure that Eagle Rock’s main street has enough trees.

In hindsight, “one could say I shot myself in the foot,” said deLara. “But I don’t think so, because I really think it’s important to have trees.” She added: “I would cut my arm before I cut a tree.

Herb West September 28, 2012 at 02:17 PM
Great write up, Ajay. I am saddened and sickened that the magnificent tree was cut down, however. It's was said there are plenty of trees in LA, but conversely, I say there are plenty of roads and parking lots already. Reminds me of the movie Lord of the Rings where the villains were destroying forests, my gut reaction is the same. Don't get me wrong, I'm not a tree hugger. However, I feel that although the tree was on private property, the owner did the wrong thing. There are enough creative people around that a solution could have been found to preserve the tree, in my opinion. I wish I had gotten on board with that myself. I don't know if the owl nesting there was that rare, but seems like if it is/was that legal action in the form of punitive damages could be warranted in some way. When the permitting was done for the dome shaped building, why wasn't preservation of that gorgeous tree a condition? Who dropped the ball? I think the tree was cut down quickly before the momentum of public protest could develop. I'm working on a photo project showing the dysfunctionality of LA. it's something I've had on the back burner, but it just got moved up in the queque. I might periodically feed you images for Patch, and " it ain't gonna be pretty".
Mark September 28, 2012 at 04:08 PM
Ajay- You have made a mistake in the sub-header of your article's headline. It should read "A leading community leader make(S)..." The story is about one single community leader, Ms. deLara. As an Editor who often comments on your reader's errors, rather than the content of their feedback, one might say this is a glaring example of "Physician, heal thyself."
mark September 28, 2012 at 04:31 PM
My daughter went to ERM and my second will also when she is old enough. Although I also hate to see trees cut down, I have confidence the resulting lot will be much nicer than the one that has been there all along. Ute's school is beautiful and has lots of trees and shade. I would guess that whatever she is doing with that dome and parking lot will make this strech of Eagle Rock even nicer.
jayres September 28, 2012 at 04:35 PM
Herb, the irony of your comment is amazing! Your working on a project about the dysfunctionality of LA, and yet your suggestions illustrate some of the reasons why LA is so dysfunctional. You determined the owner did the wrong thing and you even suggest legal action in the form of punitive damages. To whom? the Owl? This was a tree on private property. The city would not issue the owner a waiver regarding the parking requirements. The owner explored options about saving/relocating the tree but the roots were diseased. As far as the owls are concerned, trees fall or burn in nature all the time, and it will simply find a suitable replacement. But you are all fired up about someone somewhere dropping the ball. that there wasn't time for public protest. These types of attacks on private property rights is what is making the cost of doing business in Los Angeles so prohibitive and the aggitation to small business owners and individuals who are trying to fulfill their dreams and make the city a better place for those who live here often forces investment to go elsewhere. Ms. Ute deLara made a good faith effort to find an option other than removal, which she was not required to do, but in the end she exercised her rights as owner and chopped it down. We lost a beautiful palm, but we will get several new trees that will offer shade and greenery for years to come.
mark September 28, 2012 at 04:42 PM
I should add that more than a city requirement, parking is a necessity for Ute's business. The immediate neighbors are rightfully annoyed by all the traffic/parking problems her school generates. The employees of her school do their best to keep the parents moving along but there are a lot of kids coming and going every day.
rebecca September 28, 2012 at 05:42 PM
Herb your view that this illustrates what is dysfunctional about LA feels so misguided. You don't even have your facts straight as you admit to not knowing "if the owl nesting there was that rare". The fact is that this tree was on private property and therefore under the sole jurisdiction of the owner. Unlike some people who might have just taken the tree down with no consideration for planting more our community is so lucky to have someone like Ute who is pledged to create as much green space around her properties as possible. You can be sure that there will be multiple trees planted to more then make up for the loss of this one tree. In addition she is committed to teaching her students how to be environmentally responsible (for example they are not allowed to have anything that is not recyclable in their lunch boxes). We are so lucky to have Ute invest in our community and beautify it along the way.
Hugh T. September 28, 2012 at 05:57 PM
Here is the solution: In 2014 the billboard comes down-- a beautiful native tree can be planted in that spot. Native trees are not suseptible to the diseases palms are in Los Angeles and are more suitable to the native birds & pollenators, including owls. Ta da.
Ajay Singh (Editor) September 28, 2012 at 06:07 PM
Oops, Mark—what was I thinking. (That's a statement, by the way, not a question, for all of us grammarians out there.)
Duff Strong September 28, 2012 at 06:22 PM
"she helped ensure that Eagle Rock’s main street has enough trees." ...unless their in her way.
Jinx September 28, 2012 at 11:08 PM
Dear owner of lot, Glad to hear you now have room for your hideous building. I'm sure it's an improvement compared to something natural that supported a bit of what's left of our ecosystem. As we all know, there just aren't enough hideously shaped buildings in the city these days.
Alicia Stanco September 29, 2012 at 01:06 AM
I live very close to this lot and am deeply saddened by the loss of this tree. The owls that lived in the tree were barn owls, which usually live in the country in abandoned buildings, but can live in dense trees. The royal palm specifically fit the needs of the species. The tree was the tallest on the block and was dense with fronds. The idea that "neighbors are prepared to let the owls stay in the trees in their yard" is magical thinking. I would love for the owls to return and live in my yard, however, I make no pretense that this is even a possibility. Our Mt. Helena barn owls are medium sized white owls with heart shaped faces. Also easy to recognize by their nightly chorus of screeching, I know many of us were kept awake by their eerie calls. Though disturbing at times, I had a deep sense of their importance and place on my block. I had the pleasure of going outside to watch them fledge their young along with my neighbors. I have watched parents and children racing out, faces pointed toward the palm hoping to spy this miracle. This tree was important to us all.
Jane September 29, 2012 at 03:13 PM
A couple years back, Eagle Rock Montessori planted two Tabebuias and one London Plane on their property as part of the Centennial Street Tree Planting. The new trees are still slender, but so handsome and beautifully maintained by the school. We expect them to eventually give back many times the shade provided by the one palm that was removed. (Ute had requested even more trees in front of her properties, but in the end those additional locations didn't meet city requirements for distance from utilities.) I'm sad to hear about the owls, and hope they find a place to nest nearby! However, our challenge is now is to make sure that the young London Plane in front of the billboard does not get mysteriously hacked up by the billboard company before Ute is able to get the billboards removed. There are currently no other large trees on that section of Colorado Boulevard. Let's envision a future for Colorado Boulevard where large trees are plentiful and owls and birds have plenty of habitat. urbanforestcollaborative.wordpress.com
Jerry Langford September 29, 2012 at 06:50 PM
While I'm sad to see the tree go, I'm more concerned about the billboards, which are #1 on my list of visual blights in Eagle Rock. If the billboards only bring in such a paltry amount, why weren't they torn down years ago? Do land owners have no control over them, due to contractual issues? If someone could explain how billboard contracts work, I would be most appreciative. (I personally would chip in 20 bucks a month to paste a picture of blue sky over the horrible billboard on the Cindy's lot.)
Jane September 29, 2012 at 10:13 PM
P.S. Feel free to contact urbanforestcollaborative at gmail dot com if you would like to help get more shade trees on Colorado Boulevard-- trees that can one day grow super big and provide nesting sites for owls and other cute flying things!
rebecca September 29, 2012 at 11:48 PM
Wow Herb you are quite a community member! Thanks for all of your careful attention on the goings on around Eagle Rock! The internet is truly a democracy and so nice to see that you are taking advantage of that by maligning a business that you clearly know nothing about. Good thing your cat clients can't type because I think they'd have a serious bone to pick with yours. http://herbwest.zenfolio.com/p1066143870/h22e9ecd9#h22e9ecd9
carol van beek September 30, 2012 at 03:10 AM
From the photos, I can't see how that tree in the corner equals 2 parking spots. Can someone enlighten me?
Jason September 30, 2012 at 11:47 PM
Herb, you "heard through the grapevine" that the billboard is under contract? Was that "grapevine" the article to which you're replying? I swear, I don't even think half of the people who comment on here read the articles: From the article: "(The contract for the billboard runs out in 2014, and deLara said she is planning to get rid of it after that.)"
Matt H October 01, 2012 at 03:04 PM
This tree is not a Royal Palm. Royal Palms grow in humid tropical climates (i.e. South Florida, Hawaii..). This looks like a typical Canary Date Palm, a non-native species to SoCal. A quick internet search shows the differences between the two. Namely the crown is very different. Not to detract from the loss of the tree or the home to the owls, but this type of tree is relatively invasive and susceptible to disease.
Herb West October 01, 2012 at 04:24 PM
jason, I read the article. However, as Ronald R. once said, "Trust, but Verify"... so I did. I asked someone who is admittedly much better informed than you or I about this billboard . Yup, there's a contract. No, I will NOT cite my sources. However, If you want to know more about LA billboards, I suggest you go to http://banbillboardblight.org/?page_id=5248.
Angel October 01, 2012 at 04:39 PM
It does sound like Ms. DeLara diligently explored all the options available to her before removing the tree. And I appreciate that she is renovating that geodesic building, instead of tearing it down -- it's been a quirky little dome for years, and is part of the character of the neighborhood. This doesn't sound like a slash-and-burn developer, but rather someone who's been a contributing part of Eagle Rock for decades. It's hard to see trees go -- but it will be wonderful to see all the shade trees go up in the parking lot, particularly since, as Jane says, Ms. DeLara's school has so carefully maintained the ones they already put in.

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