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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.

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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