Construction began last month on a bike and pedestrian corridor between Pike Place Market and Capitol Hill. With the promise of new bike lanes and wider sidewalks, the redesigned stretch on Pike and Pine streets is meant to connect the evolving waterfront to Seattle’s most vibrant neighborhood and create safer and more inviting to passage for walkers and bicyclists.
There will, however, be several casualties: eight cherry trees lining Pike Street near the market’s entrance must go, planners say — and soon. The trees, identified by the city as Columnar Sargent cherries, are reaching the end of their life, according to the city’s Office of the Waterfront and Civic Projects. Planted in 1980, the 40-year-old cherries are difficult to maintain in an urban environment — and they can deteriorate rapidly; five have already died and been removed in previous years.
Their branches are mostly barren now — awaiting a flush of pink flowers next month that will likely no longer arrive. But those hoping for a last glance should do so before Monday, when the chipper comes for them all. The plan is to replace them with an elm varietal that should grow taller, live longer, and create a thicker canopy.
But this being Seattle, where the annual cherry blossoms are prized, and this being so near to Pike Place Market, the most fiercely protected landmark in the city since its near-death in the 1970s, the uprooting of the cherries doesn’t come without some pain.
Cherry trees are key to the market entrance’s larger aesthetic, said Bob Braun, a volunteer with “Save the Market Entrance,” which has fought the demolition of the Hahn Building on the corner of Pike Street and First Avenue.
“We are very concerned about changing the overall presentation of the entrance to the market,” he said.
Public feedback was gathered for the project on Pike and Pine, said Lauren Stensland, spokesperson for Waterfront Seattle. What they heard was a “desire for trees with a longer life span that will eventually arch over the street below and frame sightlines to the Pike Place Market sign and clock and not block the existing pedestrian lighting,” said Stensland. Hybrid elms would do, they concluded.
The $17.5 million Pike Pine improvement project will run from First Avenue to Bellevue Avenue, with Pike Street flowing one way to the east and Pine Street pointing west.
Each street will have a protected bike lane that riders can use in one shot from the market up to Capitol Hill or the other way around. The current route sends cyclists crisscrossing from one side of the street to the other, through vehicle traffic and occasionally onto the sidewalk.
The new construction will also add wider sidewalks and new, clearer crosswalks.
Led by Seattle’s Office of the Waterfront and Civic Projects, the corridor is one piece of a grand vision for the stretch from Capitol Hill, past the shiny new convention center, through downtown to the market and, finally, to the aquarium and new waterfront under construction. The hope, at a time when downtown’s future is uncertain, is that by connecting two crucial Seattle neighborhoods over the mental block of I-5 both might benefit.
“This exciting project will connect our downtown and new waterfront through enhancements that improve safety, accessibility, and vibrancy,” Mayor Bruce Harrell said in a statement.
In laying out its plans for the street, the waterfront office made only passing reference to the removal of the trees.
Ray Larson, curator of living collections for the University of Washington botanical gardens, said cherries can live up to 80 years old, but only when given plenty of room and well-draining soil for their extensive root structure. In a street setting, the trees can struggle and are generally no longer recommended for planting on sidewalks. They’re susceptible to brown fungus, don’t take well to pruning and, if damaged, can quickly degrade.
“Unless [the city] can really devote the resources to giving them a lot of extra care compared to other street trees, it’s tough to not have them fail,” he said, adding, “It’s pretty impressive they survived this long to be honest.”
Still, said Larson, he can understand the reluctance by some to tear them out. Even struggling cherries still flower and few varietals suited for city planting offer such a beautiful display in the spring. “Nothing looks as good as a cherry tree in full flower,” he said.
Taha Ebrahimi is working on a book about trees in Seattle. Cherry trees have a long history, here, as many of the specimens being shipped to the United States from Japan came through Seattle first.
She’d like to see the city work around the cherries, letting them go in their own time.
“I’m worried we’re not necessarily considering how street trees contribute to our sense of place, connecting us to an area’s heritage, providing physical and psychological benefits that are part of the city’s shared social infrastructure,” she said.
As for the elms, “they have been developed by the horticulture and nursery industry specifically to meet street-tree standards in terms of form, foliage density, and growth rate,” said Stensland.
In Larson’s mind, “they’re not bad as street trees,” he said. But, “they don’t give you the flowering look.”
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