Charlottesville prepping for more work on Downtown Mall trees

A dozen and a half people gathered on a recent Monday evening on the Downtown Mall outside the Charlottesville Parks and Recreation Department’s offices to learn more about impending tree work to address safety. Urban Forester Steve Gaines held a laser pointer and directed it towards a dead branch he said presents a hazard. 

“If you think about like mid summer or in the weeks that we have the holidays coming up,” Gaines said. “How many people are going to be walking on the Mall? Thousands a day.” 

Gaines said his job as an arborist is to protect people and the trees themselves by trying to understand how they may react. 

“What is the probability of that branch failing? And if it does fail, does it land on another branch on its way down? Is it going to hit a building? Is it going to hit a person? What’s the probability? When might it happen? Would it take a major wind event? A major snow event, something like that?” 

A small gathers to hear more about the health of the Downtown Mall trees on October 30, 2023

The bosques of Willow Oaks planted in the mid-70’s are a very important component of the historic Lawrence Halprin design for the pedestrian mall. Many are also approaching their 60th year and their health has not always been closely watched. In December 2015, a report was published that called for a management plan. (read the report)

“Despite the good initial outward appearances of the tree planting, the stand of oak trees is in a fragile, declining state,” reads the executive summary of that report. “The overly tight spacing of the trees and the insistence on paving right up to the base of the trunks of the trees has set in motion a series of biological factors that is beginning to push many of the trees to the point of failure.”  

In the summer of 2017, there was momentum toward putting a management plan in place with another tree walk similar to the one from late October. (Could Downtown Mall trees be on the chopping block?, Kayli Wren, Charlottesville Tomorrow, July 26, 2017)

Downtown Mall tree management faded as a priority as other events took place in the summer of 2017. Earlier this year, the city moved forward with a plan to remove several damaged or dead trees. Urban forester Steve Gaines held another walk on October 30 to prepare for another round of maintenance. 

“The purpose here was mostly to inform folks about tree work that is very likely coming this winter once the trees go completely dormant,” said Steve Gaines, the urban forester for the City of Charlottesville. “We will be going through to do some pruning. We call it crown cleaning as in we are removing some of the obvious hazards. Two inch deadwood and above.” 

Gaines said the event also had provided an opportunity to explain more about a forthcoming plan to manage the trees on the Downtown Mall going forward. The firm Wolf Josey Landscape Architects won the contract from the City of Charlottesville for the management plan.

The work that Gaines talked about on October 30 was more pressing and continued work done in January of this year.

“Every year I do an assessment and I take pictures and hit trees with the mallet and figure out what we’re doing with decay,” Gaines said. 

Gaines held the event and will do more like it in the future because he understands how important the trees are to Charlottesville. 

“This is the Downtown Mall’s tree, so it’s a very sensitive, very historic topic and people feel very strongly about these trees and we just want to make sure that everybody is well-informed about what is going on with the trees and make people realize that they are going through an inflection point right now and to some degree there is some hazard,” Gaines said.

“Most of those bigger limbs are very dead,” he said to the group while looking at one cluster of trees in front of the parking garage. 

During the tour, Gaines also explained more about how the trees interact with fungus, with bugs, other chemicals, and how they’re affected by a changing climate. 

Before you go: The time to write and research of this article is covered by paid subscribers to Charlottesville Community Engagement. In fact, this particular installment comes from the November 11, 2023 edition.

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