Think Big, Atlanta, or Go Home

Let’s imagine a different way of doing things.

In an earlier post, written while I was on vacation, I reported on a proposed development at the so-called Villa De Grip property, located near the intersection of North Highland Avenue and Elizabeth Street, across the street from the restaurants Sotto Sotto and Fritti.

Here’s a screenshot of the plan, showing the addition of a proposed new building on the corner of North Highland and Copenhill, as well as a new multistory parking deck at the rear of the property.

An aerial view of the property indicates clearly how much tree cover will be affected by the construction of the new building and parking deck:

Atlanta’s existing tree protection ordinance will almost certainly not stand in the way of this project. Consistent with the ordinance, the developers are proposing to replace these native, over-story tree species (water oak, sweet gum, winged elm, loblolly pine, etc.) mostly with non-native, smaller (trident maple) and mid-canopy species (e.g., Chinese elm). What they cannot replace, they will write a check for, according to a simple formula¹ that treats all trees the same, whether they’re trees that might live 30 years or trees that can live 200+ years.²

What might a different approach to tree and urban forest protection involve? Let’s imagine, via some ideas that other cities have already implemented and others that Atlanta tree advocates are presently discussing:

  1. If Atlanta had a category of “heritage trees” as Washington, D.C., now does, the developers of Villa de Grip would have to redesign their parking deck to leave this mammoth water oak in place.

2. If Atlanta had minimum green cover standards by zoning class (e.g., “Green Aspect Ratio” in D.C., “Green Factor” in Seattle), it could well be that these commercial developers wouldn’t be able to build their project without adding green features to their design, such as a green roof on the parking deck, vegetated walls, a rain garden on site, etc.

3. If Atlanta had higher standards for the installation of recompense trees in the street-side public right-of-way, the two red maples and four Chinese elms that the developers are proposing to plant along North Highland and Copenhill, respectively, could end up with larger tree “wells” to grow in, as well as structured soil or even Silva cells below ground — the latter being a suspended pavement system which holds unlimited amounts of lightly compacted soil while supporting traffic loads beneath paving:

4. If Atlanta had a tree protection ordinance that determined replacement and recompense not via the the blunt measure of simply counting trees and caliper inches, but (as I’m told local tree advocates will certainly be proposing, in some form or another) with differentiation among more and less desirable species, better and worse condition of the trees to be removed, younger and older age of the trees to be removed, etc., their replacement plan and recompense payment would come closer to matching the true value of the public resource they’re proposing to destroy.

5. If Atlanta had a big fee or penalty for square footage of impervious surface over a minimum buildable area, the developers might think much harder about whether they really need and want that much parking on site, and if in the end they were to decide that they do, at least Atlanta would have more money to purchase and conserve forest fragments and greenspaces throughout our city.

We need ideas like these and others that you yourself may have have, because the Department of City Planning will soon be bringing its consultant, Biohabitats, to town to start working on an Urban Ecology Framework. That planning process will encompass a thorough rewrite of our tree protection ordinance.

Stand by. Be ready.


¹ $ = $100 [(# trees destroyed + # trees lost) – # trees replaced] + $30.00 [(DBH inches destroyed + DBH inches lost) – caliper inches replaced], where DBH = diameter at breast height.

² Tree Watch is in discussion with the city and with these developers, if this project proceeds, to use some or all of this recompense money for replanting in Inman Park itself, at no great distance from where the existing trees will have been destroyed.

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