Kevin McCallum, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The sound of chainsaws roared through Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse Square Wednesday as the city began felling decades-old trees in preparation for the reunification of the square this summer.
A crew from Atlas Tree Surgery limbed and then began removing five trees on the east side of the square, the first of 20 being removed to prevent birds and bats from nesting in them this spring.
The work is expected to be complete by the end of the month, after which the fences will come down until construction begins in earnest on the $10 million project in June.
A handful of protesters who have decried the tree removal as hasty and unnecessary observed the work from behind fences said they were disheartened by the move.
“We’re just beside ourselves looking at the graveyard over there,” said Norma Baumsteiger, the 81-year-old Oakmont resident who has been a regular presence around the square in recent weeks, gathering signatures urging residents to oppose the removal.
She vowed a recall effort against the City Council and mayor.
“The people have spoken and City Hall never listened,” Baumsteiger said. “The people are tired of talking and now they’re going to be shouting.”
The idea of reunifying the two halves of Old Courthouse Square, split by Mendocino Avenue after the courthouse was removed in 1968, has been around for decades but only gained momentum last year. Business leaders and City Council members agreed the project represented the city’s best chance of revitalizing a downtown plagued by commercial vacancies.
But a quick redesign that included wider side streets with more parking than the previous plan and a fast-tracked construction timetable took many residents, many of whom assumed the project was indefinitely stalled, by surprise. The removal of 91 of the 114 trees in the square, including eight of 30 mature redwoods, has provoked the most ire, though concerns about the cost, traffic impacts and incomplete design remain.