Before you can shop, trees must drop
By CHRISTINA HEADRICK, Times Staff Writer
CLEARWATER -- More than 600 trees on the 74-acre Clearwater Mall property will be cut down to make way for a discount shopping center with tenants such as a home improvement store and bookstores.
About 630 of the 740 trees on the land east of U.S. 19 and south of Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard are slated for removal. Roughly one-third of them are oaks, another third are palm trees and the rest mostly smaller trees such as crape myrtles, according to the proposed mall plans.
Sembler Co., which is redeveloping the mall, is planning to plant about 950 new trees at the site. But they will be smaller than some of the older specimens that will be removed.
To make up for larger trees that will be lost, the developer could pay as much as $181,000 to a city tree bank, city records indicate. The fee is based on the developer's estimates of the size of trees that are to be cut down without being replaced with trees of similar size.
"We did go through quite a few versions of the plan so that we could try to save as many trees as humanly possible," said Lisa Brock, a spokeswoman for Sembler Co.
"Landscaping is very, very important to this project, because it will give a better feel to it. When you look at what we're planting and what we're removing, we think it's a pretty equitable situation."
Even so, city officials have asked Sembler to try to save a few more trees and submit revised plans for the mall's redevelopment by summer.
Additional trees may be preserved by adding a landscaped median or making landscaped areas slightly larger, said Rick Albee, an arborist who works for the city and oversees permits to remove trees. Also, some underground utilities could be rerouted to ensure trees are not harmed, Albee said.
"I've got some give and take to do," Albee said. "I can't stop them from taking every tree down. But we're going to try to save the ones that are really beneficial. We do the best we can."
The current plans are much better than previous conceptual ideas that saved fewer trees, said Albee and Mark Parry, a city planner.
"We actually saved most of the significant stands of trees; a lot more trees than what were originally proposed," Parry said. "I would say most of the buildings shifted one way or the other. I think they did a pretty good job."
In addition to reviewing the landscaping plans, city staff members have asked the developers to work on other things, such as how pedestrians will get around the shopping center, which is designed to allow customers to drive from store to store, city records show. The city requested the new plans by July.
Meanwhile, Clearwater officials may change the city's rules regarding tree removal in a way that would benefit the mall developers.
As it stands now, an oak tree with a 10-inch-diameter trunk can be replaced with several smaller trees with diameters that add up to 10 inches. Or a developer can pay a $48 fee for each inch that is not replaced.
But after Sembler representatives asked that the city be more flexible with those requirements, city planners proposed giving the city's planning director the authority to allow some trees not to be replaced at all -- particularly those that are an exotic species, are in poor health or pose some kind of a hazard.
Such flexibility could save the mall developers about $47,000 in fees for removing trees on the mall property that the developers believe are in poor condition, diseased or aren't native to Florida. City planners say that the proposed changes, to be discussed next month, are fair.
Another proposed change to the code would remove the requirement that replacement shade trees be at least 12 feet tall and 4 inches in diameter. Instead, developers could use shade trees that were only 10 feet high and 2.5 inches in diameter.
Two arborists on the city staff, as well as one outside arborist who was interviewed, said that the younger trees generally have a better chance of survival than the larger trees.
"This had nothing to do with Sembler," said city Planning Director Cyndi Tarathe marketplace, and our arborist tells us that these smaller trees will adapt better and grow faster."
Still, Sembler Co.'s proposed landscaping plan already includes new 10-foot oaks, taking advantage of the proposed change in the rules.
When Clearwater Mall was developed from 1972 to 1974, its creators, Bill and Wally Blackburn, took pride in saving as many trees on the property as they could. They also saw to it that a huge camphor tree with a circumference of 26 feet across the street from the mall, between Perkins Family Restaurant and Bennigans, was saved.
According to city files on the new mall, about 80 percent of the trees that will be preserved are oaks, most of those live oaks with some laurel and water oaks. Three of the trees are more than 4 feet in diameter.
Of the trees tagged for removal, five are more than 4 feet in diameter, with nine trees in the range of 3 to 4 feet in diameter. The majority seem to be in the 1- to 2-foot range, according to a tree inventory of the mall property.
Brock said that the developers did investigate relocating trees on the property but that the odds of their survival weren't good and the costs of transplanting them were too high.
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