APS seeks to cut down dozens of healthy trees for Howard middle school project

By Maria Saporta

The Atlanta Public Schools is seeking to cut down 60 trees on a key piece of property in the center of the city.

The trees have been growing on the land that surrounds the former David T. Howard Elementary School from the days when Martin Luther King Jr. attended the elementary school – only a few blocks away from his birth home.

The David T. Howard School was originally built between 1923 and 1924 on what is now John Wesley Dobbs Avenue. It was closed in 1976 and has been vacant ever since.

Howard trees

David T.Howard on John Wesley Dobbs Avenue (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

Now the Atlanta Public Schools intends to transform the building into a middle school that will be part of the Grady High School cluster. The school is needed to serve the growing number of students moving in the city and to the Old Fourth Ward community, which is a welcome development.

But current plans to turn Howard into a middle school include several new buildings as well as new driveways and parking that APS and its architects say will mean that 60 trees will need go – the overwhelming majority of the trees on the site.

Ironically, the plans show that APS intends to plant new young trees in many of the same locations where the mature trees currently stand.

People who disagree with the plans to remove the trees can make an appeal to the Tree Conservation Commission by Feb. 28 by either calling 404-330-6070 or filing a complaint at City Hall.

The local architectural firms of Stevens & Wilkinson and Lord Aeck Sargent have been designing the plans for the project, keeping the oldest portions of the school while removing some of the newer buildings on the property and replacing them with new buildings – using a design influenced by a 1924 plan for an auditorium that was never built.

Howard trees

Nearly all the trees on the block that houses the David T. Howard School would be cut down (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

But the sad reality is that the architects obviously did not design plans that would have saved most of the mature trees on the property.

If we want to protect our precious tree canopy, Atlanta’s approach to development has to change. Architects and designers will need to start designing their buildings in a way that saves our mature trees rather than clear-cutting them and planting much smaller trees in their place.

According to APS, only seven of the 60 trees that will be cut down are diseased or dying. That means the plans as currently proposed would cut down 53 healthy trees.

Clearly there must be a better solution.

Atlanta has been working hard to become a more sustainable and environmentally-friendly city. Protecting our tree cover is a major factor in cooling off our city during hot summer days and helping remove pollution from the air. A bunch of brand new trees cannot replace healthy mature trees and their contributions to our environment.

Howard trees sign

Sign to appeal plans to cut down 60 trees on Howard School property (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

In fact, our public schools should be teaching our students on the value of our old growth trees rather than setting a bad example of cutting down the very thing that helps Atlanta stand out in the nation and the world. We are a city in a forest, but that won’t last if we keep cutting down our trees.

The two local architectural firms involved with this project are well-respected and talented. I’m sure that if they were given a mandate to save as many trees as possible, they would end up with a much better design.

Because so many of the trees to be cut down are for new driveways for pick-up and drop-offs, I also would challenge APS to find another way to accommodate cars.

There is very little traffic on the streets that surround the Howard school, and it would be so much nicer if pick-ups and drop-offs could take place in spots where there currently is pavement, including the possibility of closing off a lane at the beginning and end of the school day.

Also, most of the trees on the site are on the edges of the property. There is quite a bit of open space with no trees. Why not find a way to design the new construction in the cleared off spaces while saving the trees and the topography that currently exists?

Another argument often made by people who seek to clear a site for development is that the trees would not survive the construction process.

Howard trees

David T. Howard School and its trees (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

Trees can live through a major construction project if, and that’s an important if, the developers make sure to protect the trees feeder roots with construction fencing. And even if the feeder roots are disturbed, arborist can put trees into intensive care (with special injections) until the tree is able to re-establish its roots.

As Atlanta is expected to add more population, it is more important than ever for us to balance new development with our natural amenities. And in Atlanta, our most precious amenity is our tree canopy.

It is time for our city to develop a new tree ordinance – one that would make it much more difficult for developers to clear-cut their land by paying a fine and/or planting new skinny trees.

And it is especially important that our governmental entities – those with a mandate serve the public – live up to the highest standards of development, historic preservation and tree conservation. Our cities, our public schools, our counties and our state must set a high bar and set an example for private developers.

Preserving the trees at the new David T. Howard School would be a great place to start.

Next installment: The tree massacre at Atlanta’s Bobby Jones Golf Course.

Howard masterplan

Master plan for the new David T. Howard Middle School. Notice how the new trees are in many of the same spots where mature trees exist (Special: Atlanta Public Schools)

Howard trees

Even trees on the sidewalk are to be cut down if APS gets its way (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Howard trees

Cluster of trees that are to be cut down (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

Howard trees

Another mature tree slated to be cut down at David T. Howard (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

Howard trees

Another tree slated to be cut down for Howard Middle School project (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

Howard trees

Trees with the big orange X would be cut down if APS’ plans go through (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

Howard auditorium

A 1924 rendering of the auditorium at David T. Howard School that was never built (Special: Atlanta Public Schools)

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.

21 replies
  1. John Cherry, Jr. says:

    OK; let a homeowner in ATL try to cut a tree that size down for a new house or an addition or a pool. Good luck with the city and prepare to pay.Report

    Reply
  2. Wormser Hats says:

    Between this, Piedmont Hospital, Peachtree Hills, and the Grant Park “Gateway” parking deck, a sprawling oak emblazoned with a bright orange “X” is soon to replace the phoenix as the symbol of Atlanta’s emergence from humility, wisdom, and leadership.Report

    Reply
  3. Mark Arnold says:

    While I am a lover of trees, I must say the trees in the photographs look neither healthy nor well situated. I suspect a lot of them are volunteer trees that have taken root in the 40+ years since APS shuttered the Howard School. APS has proven to be a good steward of its properties over the past 20 years or so that I’ve been involved in the public school system. The rehabilitation and renovation of the Howard School property is a watershed event for the immediate neighborhood, the Grady Cluster, and the overall city. It will promote greater diversity in the Grady Cluster while relieving overcrowding at Inman Middle School. As stated in the article, APS will be planting over 200 trees which over time will themselves contribute to a mature tree canopy. I am hopeful the selection of these trees has been thoughtful and deliberate so as to provide diversity in species and canopy heights. A well designed landscape plan will result in an even healthier tree canopy than what currently exists. As the saying goes, you’ve got to break a few eggs to make an omelette.Report

    Reply
    • Theresa Cromeans says:

      The replacement and renovation of the school is great. The plan for the construction is a separate issue. When the plans are examined, according to the report, the new trees are in very similar locations to those requested for removal. This suggests removal for convenience of construction and not need. Some trees may need to be removed but a little creativity could likely protect many of the trees. Seven trees are listed as dead, dying or hazardous (DDH) so those are the “unhealthy ones”; the other 60 are not in that category.
      The replacement trees would need 50-100 years to become the canopy that exists. In order to maintain tree canopy in “”The City in the Forest”, the concept of incremental removal and replacement of aging diseased trees must be adopted rather than slash all to plant a would be canopy.Report

      Reply
  4. Cynthia Gentry says:

    There needs to be a difference in the penalty paid for cutting down old-growth trees vs. a scraggly little pine. According to the way it is written now a tree is a tree is a tree. They add up the inches…the years don’t matter. Builders and developers build in the minuscule penalties into their budgets and don’t bat an eyelash. But, the cost to the community and the city as a whole is multiplying. I had a talk with the City of Atlanta arborists when a builder wanted to cut down the huge ancient oak tree that shaded our old home. Because the bulk of the trunk was on the other property what we thought about the matter DIDN’T matter (although our lot was home to well over half of the roots and limbs). I was told, and I quote, “Look, they can do whatever they want. We can’t stand in the way of a builder and his vision.” Really?!

    To the architects and planners on this project, please consider the suggestions offered in the article. Sure you’ll have to change a few things, but you know darn well that the things that give a project life and unique flavor spring from the constraints you are given. Well, you have a few new ones….trees that the Reverend King walked under as a child. That kind of history is in short supply in this city and in this day and age. Rise up and meet the challenge. And, while you are at it, create a natural, beautiful, playful space where the kids can get outside each day. Read the studies. The more the kids take breaks in nature, the better they do in school.

    Now, grab your erasers and get to work! You can make something special happen.Report

    Reply
  5. John P. says:

    Why can’t Trees Atlanta get involved in these projects during the planning phase in order to work with developers towards the best possible solution for everyone? I’m sure there are ‘trash’ trees among those that will be taken down, but taking down healthy mature trees simply to make construction easier is not in the best interest of our beautiful city.Report

    Reply
  6. Wormser Hats says:

    The unspoken irony here: the city’s Arborist Division rolls up under the same leadership as planning, zoning, and the purveyor of building permits. Yet, somehow, the authority of our visionary planning commissioner to temper the zeal for land development with the merits of careful and conscientious planning becomes a footnote under the wheels of the bureaucracy beneath his very office.Report

    Reply
  7. Alex says:

    This schools resurrection from disrepair is far more important than the old tree on the street that has to be replaced. There is a process in design and sometimes existing trees have an impacted root zone and/ or are diseased or look scraggly.Report

    Reply
  8. john gibson says:

    the contact information for appeal or complaint provided in the body of the article is incorrect. the proper contact is kathy evans, senior analyst with the atlanta tree commission. her number is 404-330-6235 and her email is [email protected]Report

    Reply
  9. DM Brown says:

    To voice concern and/or file an Appeal … by 2/28/18

    Kathy Evans
    ATL Tree “Conservation” Commission secretary
    404-330-6235
    [email protected]

    Who May Appeal?
    Trees on Private Property:
    Anyone who resides or owns a business or property in the neighborhood planning unit (NPU) where a property is posted for potential tree removal, or anyone who lives within 500 feet of the property, may submit an appeal.

    Trees on Public Property: (DT Howard is public property)
    Any property owner, business owner, or resident of the City of Atlanta, and/or any civic association in the NPU in which the tree or trees at issue are located may appeal.

    How Do I File an Appeal?
    Valid appeals must provide evidence, based on the City of Atlanta’s Tree Ordinance , that a city administrative official misinterpreted or misapplied the ordinance or facts material to the decision of the administrative official that the appellant believes were misinterpreted or misunderstood.

    To file an appeal, download instructions and appeal forms below:
    http://www.atlantatreecommission.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=46&Itemid=1Report

    Reply
  10. V. Thaxton says:

    Good Afternoon,

    I would like to put out a challenge to APS and the Superintendent who can appreciate the grand old oaks of the city of her alma mater. I would ask that they challenge the architects who
    are designing the school buildings to come up with a plan to incorporate the healthy old growth high valued trees just as Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh (Check out, Growing a Greener World, Season 7, Episode 21 ) did challenge their architects to come up with a better way to design or redesign their Conservatory based on sustainability values. It could be such an inspiration and learning experience for the students being impacted. The Atlanta Botanical Garden has also worked hard to do the same.

    Sustainability is such a key issue at this time and for APS to take a lead in doing this would be such an uplifting and educational experience for the community as a whole.Report

    Reply
  11. Mack68 says:

    I don’t see how the tree ordinance is being violated here. They are replacing the trees they remove, per the ordinance.

    In both the article and comments I have seen the term “old growth”. Old growth is not synonymous with “mature”. Old growth typically refers to forests, or stands of trees that are capable of reproducing under a canopy. The trees themselves do not live forever, unless they are redwoods or some others that can live for hundreds or thousands of years, which is not typical.

    If you look at the 1911 Sanborn maps you can see that the vast majority of the trees in question could not possibly be more than 100 years old, based on the structures that existed on the site at the time. Many of them appear to be street trees that were planted relatively recently (that is, not 50 years ago), most likely in a noble attempt to soften the visual blight of a vacant and neglected property.

    With respect to the “driveway” that the article says is being added, there is already a driveway behind the building, and originally there was a truncated street there – Owens Place.

    The school system seems to be adhering to the City’s tree ordinance in their tree replacement plan. There is not a net removal of tree canopy from what I can see from the information provided in this article (it would have been good to link to the tree replacement plan and calculations so that anyone wishing to appeal could see if there was evidence of error).
    I agree with Mark Arnold that the end result is likely to be one that prolongs the longevity of the existing tree canopy while also improving the aesthetics.Report

    Reply
  12. msn says:

    “There is very little traffic on the streets that surround the Howard school, and it would be so much nicer if pick-ups and drop-offs could take place in spots where there currently is pavement, including the possibility of closing off a lane at the beginning and end of the school day.”

    Huh?!? Not sure you’ve ever been near the site. Try it near 5 or better yet go check out the carpool and bus traffic at Inman and superimpose that on this site. Traffic flow will definitely be an issue.

    Original plan was for this Middle School to be an Inman expansion…but then the VaHi neighbors threw a fit about the trees and ‘their’ dog park. Both of which are on APS owned land. I’m as big a fan of tree as anyone at some point in town Atlanta needs to decide which is more important, kids or trees.Report

    Reply
  13. l1k3 says:

    I am disappointed to see such a misinformed article about our Great City. Anyone that is familiar with this 7 acre block knows that while not every tree on this lot is diseased, most all of them have come up wild and look horrible. The largest of these are diseased and drop limbs continually. Pay attention this spring and see which ones actually bloom; the largest ones do not.

    APS should be applauded for their efforts in cleaning up the neighborhood. This is the second major project on the same street, only a couple blocks over from one another where they (APS) are reinvesting into the community in both academics and athletics in the last year. People say they want to improve the lives of children, but Maria is more concerned about trees. You want to stop urban violence, then you provide fun learning environments to encourage kids to stay out of trouble.

    No City in the US has a more beautiful canopy of trees than Atlanta for an urban area. Stop overreacting. APS has to replace inch for inch of any trees they remove. Look at the design plan closely (above). They are planing trees all over this property. Imagine what that will look like in 5 years.

    Imagine what this property would look like in 5 years… if APS did nothing.Report

    Reply
  14. John Tree says:

    Looks like a great project, a thoughtful adaptive reuse of a historic building, which is nice in a city that too often tears down its history.

    The beautiful thing about trees is that they’re a renewable resource. But they don’t live forever. If the time comes to redevelop a piece of land in a way that better serves the community, and provides a better built environment (wider sidewalks, more inviting public spaces, ADA compliance), removing and re-planting trees is a responsible decision to make. Especially here, where there will be a net increase of trees on the site, which will mature over time. To focus so intently on mature trees seems to be too focused on the short-term. Not all of us will get to live to see the day these trees mature, but we have to be forward-thinking. Future generations will thank ours for the beautiful canopy this school will be home to in the future.Report

    Reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] This was the second column in a two-part series. To read the first column about the Atlanta Public Schools’ plans to cut down trees for the renovation of the David T. Howard Elementary School, please click here. […]Report

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