Schenley Plaza project uproots old trees

Rot discovered in London planes planted in 1921

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Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette photos
A view from the Cathedral of Learning shows the round location for a tent at Schenley Plaza. To the right is where the 28-foot carousel will be located.
Click photo for larger image.

If a tree falls in a forest, there might not be a soul to see it or hear it. But when large, majestic trees fall in a public place such as Oakland's Schenley Plaza, people notice.

Not long after the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy had 10 London plane trees cut down there last week, several University of Pittsburgh employees and others fired off e-mails to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

"One by one, [the trees] were systematically mowed down," wrote John Hempel, a member of Pitt's Department of Biological Sciences, who also is chair of the Braddock Hills Tree Committee. "Apparently, old trees need not apply for space at their new plaza."

The conservancy's $10 million transformation of the plaza, between Hillman and Carnegie libraries, from car park to people park is almost finished, and with it has come the loss of many of the plaza's beloved old trees.

When the plaza was finished in 1921, it was flanked by double allees, or walkways, of young London plane trees, four regimented rows on its west and east sides. Distinguished by their exfoliating bark, the trees, over time, grew into tall, sheltering canopies at the edges of the plaza, which became home to ever-increasing numbers of parked cars. But just as the plaza is about to get a new life, its greatest amenities are nearing the end of theirs.

Phil Gruszka, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy's director of parks management and maintenance, shows where a older London plane tree shows signs of rotting.
Click photo for larger image.

The trees that came down were rotted, said arborist Phil Gruszka, the conservancy's director of parks management and maintenance.

"They all had decay in them," Mr. Gruszka said, adding that when he joined the conservancy in December 2002, one of his first recommendations was to replace the plaza's entire collection of London planes over time. "It's important to have mature trees of a fairly large size represented on the site, so we wanted to do it in stages."

To understand the condition of the trees that were removed, Mr. Gruszka said, take a look at the large cavities evident in some of those that remain in front of Carnegie Library. At least one of those holes appears to be hosting a family of starlings.

At some point in their history, probably early on, the Schenley Plaza trees' branches were severely cut back to produce dense new growth. The pollarding resulted in weaker main branches than if the trees had been left to grow naturally.

Last month, 33 new trees in front of the library and Pitt's Frick Fine Arts Building replaced ones that had been removed. The trees must be replaced in groups because they don't grow well in the shade of tall trees.

On the opposite side of the plaza, in front of Hillman Library, one of the original trees remains. Those allees had been depleted in recent years as dying or hazardous trees were removed, and 18 were taken down when the plaza makeover began.

The conservancy hopes to attract a restaurant at the site of the 10 trees cut down last week, but Mr. Gruszka said they weren't removed to make way for it.

"It was just fortuitous those two happened to coincide," he said.

He expects to plant London plane trees around the restaurant next year.

Ninety-three new London planes have been planted along the sidewalks on the eastern and western edges of the plaza. They are serviced by an underground irrigation system within a porous gravel-soil mixture designed to promote root growth and longevity. Mr. Gruszka said they could live for up to 350 years.

At Mr. Gruszka's request, Carnegie Museum of Natural History botanist Dr. Cynthia Morton examined the genetic makeup of each of the plaza's trees. Because the new trees, grown in Oregon and purchased from nurseries in Butler and New Jersey, are not as genetically diverse and therefore not as disease-resistant as the older ones, Mr. Gruszka has had cuttings taken from the older trees with the greatest genetic diversity and is having them propagated. They could prove to be a better cultivar than the newly planted trees, a variety named Bloodgood.

London plane trees were developed in England or Western Europe in the 1600s as a natural cross between the American sycamore and the Oriental plane tree. Because they are fast-growing, withstand pollution and thrive in a variety of soil conditions, the trees have been widely cultivated and planted in cities and towns.

London planes can reach heights of 70 to 100 feet; Mr. Gruszka estimates those in the plaza are 50 to 60 feet tall. It should take the new trees about 10 years to reach a height of 35 feet, and another 20 years to equal or exceed the height of the older trees.

Elsewhere on the plaza, the carousel will be installed in a few weeks, as will a large, seasonal, earth-toned tent which will provide shelter and shade. Four food kiosks on the plaza will serve hot dogs, bagels, Asian food and pizza and Italian food. A fifth structure, the maintenance building, will house a 24-hour security guard; its fence will enclose the plaza's moveable tables and chairs, to be delivered next month.

The new Schenley Plaza is expected to open in early May, and wireless Internet access should be available by the ceremonial opening June 8.

The Evolution of Schenley Plaza is the title of a panel discussion to be held at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in Room 125 of Pitt's Frick Fine Arts Building. Participants include Meg Cheever, president of Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy; Maureen Hogan, former assistant director of the Pittsburgh city Planning Department; Andrew J. Schwartz, managing principal of Environmental Planning & Design, the project's construction manager; and Susannah Ross, of the Sasaki Associates design team.

The free event is co-sponsored by Chatham College's Interior Architecture and Landscape Architecture programs and the University of Pittsburgh's Department of History of Art and Architecture.


Patricia Lowry can be reached at plowry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.


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