One tree on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall is showing its fall foliage for the final time. The sound of birds in its branches and acorns hitting the brick pavers in front of the Omni Charlottesville Hotel soon will be replaced with the buzzing of chainsaws — and a pile of sawdust.

The 18-inch diameter willow oak, which is among those forming an allée along West Main Street from Old Preston Avenue to Water Street, has been in decline for the past two years, according to a report by Mike Ronayne, the city’s urban forester. It has “very limited and sparse new growth” and signs of decay at its base, according to the report.

“Whole tree failure at the defect would put the Omni building and pedestrians at risk. Dead limbs in the tree also pose some risk as well,” the report states.

The Board of Architectural Review recently approved the city’s request to take down the native deciduous tree before it decides to take itself down. One of the alternatives was to continue monitoring the tree.

Guidelines recommended replacing the tree with one of a similar species, but given the age and placement of the neighboring trees, that option was met with debate.

“Due to the proximity of the other willow oaks and the canopies there, I do not recommend replacement due to the fact that in 10 years the canopy will be closed in …” Ronayne said.

BAR member Breck Gastinger acknowledged the difficulties in replacing a tree in a tight configuration in a planter, such as in this instance, “however, there are a couple of conditions that are a bit unique in this particular situation that, I think, give us some reason to think that there may be some better possibilities for a tree growing up in its location.”

The planter has ample soil, Gastinger said, and the future of the trees on the other side of the mall, near the Main Street Arena, which is set to be demolished to make way for the Center of Developing Entrepreneurs building, also known as CODE, should be considered.

 “It should be known that this tree … is part of a 10-tree entrance corridor,” he said. “They are paired on both sides of that entrance of the mall, so it’s definitely part of a ceremonial at that place, and so losing the one tree will definitely stand out.”

In the absence of a long-term strategy, Gastinger said he is cautious about making a one-off decision to remove a tree without replacing it and making accommodations to help it thrive.

Board Chairwoman Melanie Miller said that, as the City Council has designated this portion of the mall as a future Vinegar Hill Park, the developers of CODE will be working with the city on the future of the trees fronting the building’s Main Street side and, at the least, making the area accessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Those trees most likely will not be put back exactly the way that they were once CODE is completed, she said, and the final plans could call for the trees on the Omni side to be removed, as well.

“So, because there’s all this change happening, … [and] this tree isn’t in eminent danger of doing anything horrible, I would kind of think before the city spends money even removing or replacing it, we see what happens with the rest of it,” she said.

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When Vinegar Hill Park is created, city staff said at the BAR meeting, a wholesale replacement of the current plantings is not expected.

Willow oaks grow at a rate of about 2 feet a year and reach maturity at about 50 years. The one in question is relatively young — although the majority of the Downtown Mall trees were planted in 1976, those between the Omni and the Main Street Arena are part of a mall extension that dates from the 1980s.

As other trees along the mall also could be approaching the end of their lifespans, and their close canopies and planters threaten their survivability, Miller said it would be a good idea for the city to produce a report on the future of all of the mall’s foliage.

 “It might be a nice precedent kind of to set with the city that we want to see more of a long-term plan for all the trees on the mall, because this isn’t the only willow oak that’s in decline that either needs to be dealt with now or relatively soon,” she said.

“Despite the good initial outward appearances of the tree planting, the stand of oak trees is in a fragile, declining state. The overly tight spacing of the trees and the insistence on paving right up to the base of the trunks of the trees has set in motion a series of biological factors that is beginning to push many of the trees to the point of failure,” the most recent mall tree assessment, released in 2016, states. “Fortunately, there is time with the proper adjustments and modifications to save much of the fabric of this place.”

Recommendations in the 2016 assessment for extending the lives of the trees include removing tree grates and pruning to compensate for the close tree spacing.

In lieu of there being a plan in place, the BAR voted to replace the tree with one at least 2 inches in diameter. The motion passed with Miller dissenting.

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Elliott Robinson

Elliott Robinson has spent nearly 15 years in journalism and joined Charlottesville Tomorrow as its news editor in August 2018 through 2021. He is a graduate of Christopher Newport University.