As Atlanta grows, let’s make sure we protect our precious trees

By Maria Saporta

For too long, growth in the Atlanta region has translated to the clear-cutting of mature trees – undisputedly one of our greatest natural assets in Georgia.

It happened again in early February.

Several groves of mature oaks and magnolias in front of Piedmont Atlanta Hospital on Peachtree Road were cut down to make way for the new Piedmont Atlanta Hospital Tower.

Piedmont Hospital trees

Huge tree trunks are all that remains from the groves of mature trees that used to be in front of Piedmont Hospital (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Dr. Patrick Battey, CEO of Piedmont Hospital Atlanta, said the new tower will be home to the Marcus Heart and Vascular Center, and the hospital has a “significant capacity issues” in serving the health needs of people in metro Atlanta.

Battey said the hospital has been planning its expansion project for the last four years, and it reviewed five different design proposals. But he said the trees had to go to accommodate the new 850,000 square foot building, to provide underground parking and reorient the vehicular access to the hospital campus.

“We are all sad that we had to remove the old magnolias and the oaks, but it was the only way we could do it,” Battey said in a phone interview. We had 146 healthy trees on the site, and we are going to plant about 103 new trees on the site.”

Battey said the design of the new tower (13 stories above ground and three stories below) will be “covered’ with green space.

“What we had before were those beautiful mounds of trees,” he said. “There will be a landscaped walkway with new trees, even though they will not be the same magnitude of the trees that were there.”

Piedmont hospital trees

The front of Piedmont Hospital is starkly different without its trees (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Battey said the hospital worked with the neighborhood and met the criteria set forth in the city’s planning process as well as the BeltLine Overlay District.

“I would hope as we mourn the loss of these trees, there’s a little recognition that what will come out of this will be a really neighborhood-friendly and pedestrian-friendly designed building that interacts a lot better with the community than it has in the past,” Battey added.

But maybe the problem is that we don’t have enough tools to protect our fragile tree cover – keeping Atlanta as green a city as it can be.

Kathryn Kolb, director of EcoAddendum – a group that raises awareness of Georgia’s natural environment, said situations like Piedmont Hospital point to a bigger problem.

“Planners are still not planning around existing trees,” Kolb wrote in an email. “People talk about it, but it is simply not being done. The value of existing older trees and forested areas cannot be replaced. People say trees are important, but they are not being considered in plans for the greater landscape or for building projects, from single-family residential lots to larger projects.”

The problem is similar to Atlanta’s stance towards preservation. We do not begin with the mandate of preserving our past and then build around that mindset. The former Sheffield Doctor’s Building, constructed in 1963, also is a casualty of the Piedmont expansion, even though there was barely outcry to save the 54-year-old turquoise structure.

Piedmont Hospital Sheffield

The Sheffield Doctor’s building is being demolished to make way for the expansion of Piedmont Hospital (Photo by Maria Saporta)

We should approach preserving our trees as we would our historic treasures. Let’s begin with a development mindset that states we keep and nurture our mature trees.

Most people don’t appreciate what trees do for our city. They clean our air. They provide shade. They reduce the heat  in our city of buildings and pavement. In short, they make us healthier.

That’s why it’s particularly troubling that a healthcare facility – dedicated to making us healthier – actually cuts down trees that contribute to our community’s health.

Kolb said it’s time to rethink the Atlanta tree ordinance, away from allowing any tree to be cut down for a price. Even the fines for illegal cutting are negligible when compared to the cost of construction.

Protecting our existing tree cover will become even more critical with planners anticipating that the city of Atlanta’s population will more than double in the next 20 years.

The Atlanta City Design Project – being put together under the leadership of planner Ryan Gravel and the city’s planning commissioner, Tim Keane – has come up with an elegant way for the city absorb the anticipated growth.

In short, growth will be directed towards the city’s major corridors while the low-density neighborhoods with tree canopies that would become conservation areas, Keane said at a recent Transform Westside Summit meeting.

Piedmont Hospital trees

An aerial view of how the trees used the soften the Peachtree front of Piedmont Hospital (Photo courtesy of Google Maps)

But he also said that it is important intersperse green spaces along the denser transportation corridors and to always look to connect people with nature.

“We want a balanced growth of the city,” Keane said. “This change is an amazing opportunity for us to become the city we want to be.”

For us to become such a city, Kolb said the city will need to make existing trees and forests a higher priority – before it’s too late.

“Right now, the whole metro-area’s urban forest is a bit like a bleeding artery,” Kolb said. “Changing the tree ordinance could create ways to protect existing older trees.”

It is too late to save the groves of trees along Peachtree in front of Piedmont Hospital.

But going forward. we need to design developments that don’t destroy our precious tree canopy.

Piedmont hospital trees

A green sanctuary used to be in front of Piedmont Hospital (Photo from Google Maps)

Piedmont Hospital

This image shows the size of the trees that used to welcome people who came to Piedmont Hospital (Photo by Google Maps)

Piedmont Hospital rendering

Rendering of new Piedmont Atlanta tower (Courtesy of Piedmont Hospital)

Piedmont hospital

Upper terrace of new Piedmont Atlanta tower (Courtesy of Piedmont Hospital)

Piedmont Hospital

The plaza that will be part of the new building (Courtesy of Piedmont Hospital)

Piedmont hospital

Another view of the plaza, this showing a dining space below 22 shade trees (Courtesy of Piedmont Hospital)

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

20 replies
  1. Julie says:

    The shady grove of old growth trees in front of Piedmont Hospital was a tribute to what Atlanta is — a city in the trees (hope we can keep that moniker for a few more years, at least). I remember being in the hospital there and having the fortune of being in a room overlooking those trees. It was a healing force to me and I thought at the time, this is a special place of healing. When I rode by the other day after the trees were cut down, it ripped at my heart and boggled my mind. Sometimes progress is just not worth the loss. Irreplaceable!Report

    Reply
  2. Ken says:

    Maria: I am always struck by looking at pictures of our city in the 1960s and 1970s, in the urban areas there were no trees! Trees Atlanta has done a wonderful job of creating an urban forest that wasn’t part of the city’s history. They have been amazingly successful at their work. Shade is so important to the pedestrian experience in our city during the hot and humid summers.Report

    Reply
  3. Steve Hagan says:

    Excellent story!!! I just shared with many Face Book groups in Tucker as City is doing new Comp Plan and hopefully look at new tree ordinance. On Face Book please look at Save 44 Acres of Forest as a developer wants to cut and fill “one of the best high quality forests in metro Atlanta” says Kathryn Kolb.Report

    Reply
  4. Brian says:

    From the renderings, it looks like most of those replacement trees are going to be in wells or other limited-root-growth areas. To Kolb’s “irreplaceable” point, the replacement trees won’t be able to grow as big, nor will they live as long as the trees that were removed, unless the contractor is installing pricey, advanced infrastructure for tree roots below the pavement like Silva cells or structural soil.Report

    Reply
  5. Chris Heller says:

    Cheers Maria for reporting on this massively important story for Atlanta. I find it rather disgusting that Dr. Battey considers removing 146 fully grown trees is equal to planting 103 new trees. Wake up Doc and do some dendrology study. Might help you with your current position.

    I would ask or suggest, Maria, that a follow up article about the importance of taking care of trees is just as important as showing how little developers care about our canopy. I live in Ormewood Park. Everyday, especially when the leaves are down, I am reminded of how little home owners seem to know about or care about the trees in their own yards. If you see a tree full of leaves at this time of year, you should know that tree is being killed by those leaves. Those leaves are from the invasive English Ivy, and not the tree. Ivy chokes the tree, steals it’s water and will eventually overtake the tree and all it’s nearby tree friends.

    Add in the evil nemesis Kudzu, the invasive Chinese Privet and the trees Asian cousin, Bamboo, and you have the ingredients for a Tree Armageddon against all of our leafy, in town neighborhoods. This is not contained to Ormewood Park either. Anywhere in the metro region you can see groves of trees, old growth and huge, draped in Ivy or Kudzu. In my backyard, our little forest is being overrun by Bamboo, Ivy and Kudzu. Yet every year it gets worse, trees die and no one makes any attempt to stop it.

    I have personally made it my mission to cut my way in and cut back the Chinese Privet and remove the Ivy from around the trees and up their trunks, in an effort to save what I can see. But I am only one guy. We need an army of caring folks.

    I’m ready to enlist, and I welcome anyone who cares about the future of our City in a Forest to join me.Report

    Reply
  6. Susan Varlamoff says:

    If Atlanta wants to be seen as a sustainable city and a center for climate change and health, it must save trees to maintain vegetation to mitigate vehicle emissions and provide life giving oxygen to the people. We also need to maintain trees in wildlife corridors in urban areas to preserve biodiversity. Thanks Maria for writing about this important subject!Report

    Reply
  7. Greg Levine says:

    Trees are so much of Atlanta’s identity that we are known as “The City in the Trees”.
    Atlanta’s canopy coverage was 48 percent in 2008 and we know that future satellite imagery will show tree loss. The trees at Piedmont Hospital are symbolic of what we are losing all over the city. Our urban forest is being threatened from infill housing, subdivisions, and invasive species.
    The Atlanta City Design Project has promise for permanently protecting parts of Atlanta’s forest and designing a city that not only makes room for trees but creates the physical environment for them to thrive. We applaud the effort and will help further the concept of growing our city, while making protecting its trees a reality.
    Trees Atlanta strongly believes that citizens have the power to protect our forest. We are working to engage community at the neighborhood level through our new program, Canopy Conversations. Canopy Conversations inform concerned residents about the state of the canopy in the City of Atlanta and their own neighborhood. In a series of localized presentations in various neighborhoods, Trees Atlanta can discuss canopy coverage, notable forest or specimen trees and most importantly, offer resources and strategies for protecting and conserving the trees in their neighborhoods. Contact Christina Gibson, our Canopy Conservation Coordinator, [email protected], to set up a canopy conversation for your neighborhood. To learn more about how your canopy coverage in your neighborhood, NPU or city council district in Atlanta compares to others go to http://geospatial.gatech.edu/TreesAtlanta/.

    Greg Levine and Connie Veates
    Co-Executive Directors
    Trees AtlantaReport

    Reply
  8. Helene Mewborn says:

    An excellent article! Thank you Ms. Saporta.
    Deveopment all around Atlanta in recent years has depleted the old growth. Clear cutting
    seems accepted. But it is sad to see!
    Atlanta needs to take note and preserve before it is too late!
    As an octogenarian, Atlanta-born, I have seen the destruction.
    Hopefully a seed has been planted: like the Save the Fox campaign started the preservation
    of architectural gems here!Report

    Reply
  9. D Schwall says:

    The retirement facility on Peachtree Hills Ave. is about to cut many old growth trees. I wish we had better “tree” laws instead of oops, pay the fine, plant more trees that will take years to grow. The article is so correct. Trees help clean the air. With all this glass and concrete around us, they help lower the summer temps in our pocket communities. Sad.Report

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  10. Tom Reilly says:

    It takes some thirty years to produce a real person–or a real tree!! Our tree canopy enhances our quality of life, our health, even our financial prosperity!! There are still patches of primeval woods here in our twenty-first century urban landscape. We don’t have mountains, or beaches, or much in the way of historical sites. But the Atlanta metro area does have the largest urban forest in the nation–something to enhanced and protected at all costs!!–Tom Reilly, Volunteer Team Leader, the National Wildlife FederationReport

    Reply
  11. glenda bell says:

    The best things about Piedmont Hospital were the trees. The natural good health and shade provided for those who worked and visited there. Now to compete with Emory Piedmont powers that be must do the knee jerk thing and wipe out those gorgeous old trees. There will never be anything to take their place as beneficial..
    so sadReport

    Reply
  12. Tony Wilbert says:

    Maria, are you covering this story, too? That’s a lot more trees to be felled.

    Isakson Living – Please go BACK to your great idea … Keep the Trees … Don’t destroy 453 of them
    Laura Dobson from Peachtree Hills · 1h ago
    Yesterday Isakson Living was gracious enough to hold a meeting regarding their plans to destroy 453 trees on the property planned for Peachtree Hills Place.

    I supported Isakson. I like Isakson. I voted for the original Isakson rezoning proposal. I am encouraged by and appreciate their reaching out to Trees Atlanta immediately after the meeting to set up more conversations.

    SO … please encourage Isakson to go back to THEIR great idea … 50% (or as close to it as possible) tree preservation as sold into the neighborhood when their plan was originally presented.

    http://www.reporternewspapers.net/2008/0

    “We were interested in keeping the existing trees there, because it was a great asset,” said E. Andrew (Andy) Isakson, managing partner of Isakson-Barnhart. “It just adds value to the product. That’s what people want. They want to look out and see mature trees, so I was real proud that when we planned this development, we were able to save over half the trees.”

    From https://atlanta.daybooknetwork.com/story

    “We are making an environmental statement with Peachtree Hills Place by protecting trees and sponsoring the development of a curriculum that has the potential to impact the entire industry,” said E. Andrew (Andy) Isakson, Managing Partner of Isakson Barnhart. “Our efforts are unprecedented for a project of this magnitude.”Report

    Reply
  13. yeehaw says:

    Maria,

    Great reporting as always. Development does not have to be a zero sum game – we can have economic development AND preservation, if the right ordinances are enacted. More public education and engagement about the long-term health and economic benefit of trees will help as well.

    God bless Greg Levine and the entire staff at Trees Atlanta for all the tree advocacy they do. They are coming to my sons’ school (TMSA, in College Park) again next week to teach our students lessons about the value of trees – lessons that adults can’t always seem to fully grasp. – NoelReport

    Reply
  14. Maria Saporta
    Maria Saporta says:

    Make sure you read Bill Torpy’s column on ajc.com today. He did a great job explaining what’s at stake for our city of trees. Let’s save them while we still have them.Report

    Reply
  15. ECIngram says:

    I really believe those trees saw Sherman’s army and cringed – hoping they would be spared. I worked there for 38yrs. and always loved this area for a respite from the activities of my job inside the hospital. More outdoors spaces for patients and families will help the healing by contact with nature – not concrete!Report

    Reply

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