Bill Torpy at Large: Atlanta neighborhoods stumped by Treemageddon

All that’s left of a mini-forest in front of Piedmont Hospital in Buckhead are a few healthy stumps as the hospital on Peachtree Street prepares to expand. Photo by Bill Torpy

All that’s left of a mini-forest in front of Piedmont Hospital in Buckhead are a few healthy stumps as the hospital on Peachtree Street prepares to expand. Photo by Bill Torpy

A drive down Peachtree Road in Buckhead has caused many passersby to do a double-take in disbelief as they notice the recently denuded Piedmont Hospital.

The friendly canopy of mature trees that greeted visitors to the venerable medical center was cut down last month as the facility gets ready to build an 850,000-square-foot addition out front.

Bill Torpy is a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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The expansion is just the latest in the City Too Busy to Enjoy Trees.

Cranes, earth movers and dumpsters are the ubiquitous status symbols of vitality.

Dr. Patrick Battey, Piedmont's CEO, told the Saporta Report the hospital had nowhere to go, except for where the 146 trees stood.

“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,” he said, adding that they’ll replant 103 new trees there.

New as in itty bitty, I suppose. But who am I to quibble over the march of progress and medicine?

A healthy tree canopy has long been a shared civic aesthetic, earning Atlanta another nickname, City in a Forest.

But as the city grows with people seeking an intown ZIP code, it has become apparent that trees — no matter how much we love them — stand in the way of progress.

In 2008, a Georgia Tech survey found that 48 percent of the city is covered under a tree canopy, tops in the nation. Of those trees, three-quarters are on single-family residential property.

A more recent survey, not yet released, will no doubt find that the 48 percent has shrunk.

I called Trees Atlanta, the org known for sending out legions of volunteers with shovels and saplings. Co-director Greg Levine was more than a bit concerned when I asked him what was going on.

“Other cities have an ocean or a river or a lake,” he said. “We have trees.”

Atlanta, with perhaps 500,000 residents, has permitted an astounding 40,000 residential units since 2010. But there’s a problem: Those trees that people love so much are standing where the family room needs to be. Or the garage. Or the master bath.

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Levine started ticking off north Atlanta neighborhoods that are fronts in the ongoing battle: “Morningside, Virginia Highlands, Chastain. That one’s especially horrible. They rip down a tree and put a house there. They pay the fine. They just don’t care.”

By “they,” he means developers and homebuilders. The more valuable the property, the less a builder has to worry when cutting down a tree. It’s simply a cost of doing business.

He added that neighboring DeKalb County is worse.

“DeKalb, from what I understand, is doing very little to nothing,” he said. “DeKalb sees any development as good development.”

As a DeKalb resident, I know that to be true. Moonscapes are common, the worst being where the DeKalb Farmer’s Market scorched a massive swath of earth to expand and has left it bare for a couple of years.

Hmmm, a new Atlanta slogan in the brewing: At Least We’re Not DeKalb.

Piedmont Hospital in Buckhead minus the tree canopy. Photo by Bill Torpy

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I called Charlotte Gillis, a Morningside resident who served on Atlanta’s Tree Commission. She sounded as dispirited as the Trees Atlanta guy.

“As single-family lots are built up with McMansions and large expansions, those with 30- and 40-inch trunks are coming down and it’s legal,” she said. “And there’s nothing that can be done.”

It’s ironic, Gillis added. The old trees, mixed with old houses, help sell the neighborhood near Piedmont Park. When people buy the smallish but high-priced lots, they want to maximize the amount of house they can squeeze onto the “buildable area” — that is, within the 35-foot setback on the front, 7 feet on the sides and 15 in the back. So the trees come down and a big house goes up.

“And they’ll keep going and going and going until all the trees that sell this neighborhood will be cut down,” Gillis said, adding that she didn’t want to be portrayed as a “tree-hugger.”

“This is about everybody’s property values. This is about economics. How do we protect our value and our neighborhoods with these trees?”

Parts of Atlanta haves less than ten percent tree cover.

Brink Dickerson, a lawyer who lives in Chastain Park and heads the neighborhood planning unit, is similarly alarmed. Chastain lots are now approaching the million-dollar mark and the cost of whacking a few trees is just a rounding error — a fine of $1,000 per tree (if caught), added to the normal permitting fee of $100 per tree and $30 per inch of diameter at the 4.5-foot mark.

"Developers find it less expensive to cut down all the trees and pay the fine, so they clear-cut," he said. "In northwest Atlanta we are worried about the decreasing tree canopy. The fines are meaningless. They are just a cost of doing business."

But it’s not just the tony areas up north. Ormewood, on the southeast side, is experiencing infill building, and builders cutting down trees at odd times and answering questions later.

“I wouldn’t say we’re the next wave,” said longtime resident Ron Lall. “We’re in the wave.”

Neighborhoods across Atlanta — including this property in the Tuxedo Park neighborhood — are seeing swaths of old trees come down as new houses go up. Photo by Mercy Sandberg-Wright

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As the Atlanta ordinance currently stands, “If you want to take down trees, you’re going to pay for it,” said Tim Keane, the city’s planning director.

That makes some builders unhappy. Many have complained they must go through an arduous process to legally cut down trees. This leads to some sneaking in on Sunday mornings, cutting down trees and telling the city, “Catch me if you can.”

Usually they’re not, residents say.

Keane isn’t happy with the ordinance, either — but for a different reason. “To me it’s kind of unusual.”

Keane said he'd like to change the "transactional" system of paying to cut down trees and create a plan that sets standards for what the community wants. In a new system, residents would designate the types of trees to save — say, old hardwoods of a certain size — and then put in place a variance process that has public meetings if a builder wants to cut down a favored tree.

And the nonprotected trees would be easier to cut. He’s proposing something this year.

“There has to be some common sense,” he said.

A radical idea.