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San Francisco’s $100,000 tree rescue---politics over prudence

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SAN FRANCISCO, CA --- Chronicle readers were amused by an April 2011 report by that newspaper’s political insiders, Matier and Ross, who wrote about a stately, but dangerously drooping Italian stone pine tree on a Telegraph Hill.

Instead of cutting down the tree – the sensible plan to allow delivery trucks to more easily traverse the narrow end of Montgomery Street – the project became another San Francisco fiscal folly.

The tree rescue exceeded its $100,000 budget, perhaps double the original estimate, It may have also created a public safety hazard.

In fact, two months later, when I called the Department of Public Works, they still didn’t have the final cost.

Here's the story: When word got out that the tree might be removed, the battle began.

Some residents wanted the tree saved. So did the powerful neighborhood association, or at least key members of the association. A former supervisor jumped in as well, I am told. The Department of Public Works was forced to hold public hearings. Only a couple of residents showed up at the meeting, says one who was in attendance.

But the project moved forward.

As the Chronicle columnists reported, “officials ordered up an 11-foot-plus metal crutch, plus a 5-by-7-foot concrete base to hold the brace, plus a wall to go around the base - all of which cut the street in half.”

I visited the tree on a warm May morning.

There it was: the concrete brace blocking the street and the fire hydrant which had to be moved from one corner to another. Rubber tracks were already visible on the new concrete base from vehicles maneuvering around it.

Then I noticed a problem.

The neighborhood consists of many low rise condos and apartment buildings. If there were a fire, how would an eighty-foot hook and ladder fire truck maneuver around the concrete base. I called the city’s Fire Department administration offices. They told me the “hook and trailer ladder” vehicles are 8.5 feet wide – without the stabilizing braces extended.

I asked a resident to measure the width around between the tree and the fire hydrant – 10 feet, I was told. So just how is a truck and trailer going to swing around that brace with a foot and half to spare. I posed that question to the Department of Public Works. “All projects are reviewed by the affected city agencies,” I was told.

I see.

But San Francisco suffers from a plague of unintended consequences.

In this case, city agencies, a neighborhood association, politicians weighed in on a relatively simple public works project. Everyone was satisfied with the result. All demands were met. But in the end was a new possible problem was created.

In San Francisco, city government too often yields to the most powerful or most vocal political players.

In such cases, as in others, it’s politics over prudence, in San Francisco.

Postscript: Since publishing this article, several Telegraph Hill residents have reported at least 10 vehicles brushed the concrete tree platform --- including a San Francisco Police car. (Be sure to view the video on this page for graphic rendition of the $100.000 tree rescue and its consequences.)

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