The redwood tree at the West Branch of the Berkeley Library that will have to be taken down. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

A towering redwood tree that was to be the focal point of the garden at the new West Branch of the Berkeley Public Library was so damaged by the contractor that it will have to be taken down, library officials announced Tuesday.

The contract with West Bay Builders required the company to take precautions to preserve the root structure of the redwood, but those measures were not followed, according to a letter Donna Corbeil, director of library services, sent out to neighbors. The contractor damaged the roots while excavating around the tree.

Dan Gallagher, the city’s forestry engineer, recently examined the tree’s roots and determined that they were so damaged that the tree is unstable and unhealthy.

“The result of severing those important roots is that the tree’s anchorage and stability has been compromised,” Gallagher was quoted as saying in the letter. “No reasonable alternatives to re-establishing the tree’s stability exist. The roots served a vital function that cannot be restored by any other means.”

The contractor will be removing the tree — which looks about 70 feet high — within the next few days, and will have to pay for the damage, said Corbeil. The Library Board discussed the issue Tuesday night and will address what kind of tree will replace the redwood when it considers the landscaping plan Nov. 14.

The news that the redwood tree would soon be cut down came as a shock to neighbors, who were already upset that the library project at 1125 University Ave. had entailed the cutting of five other redwood trees.

“It’s really shocking,” said Chaim Mahgel, whose family lives right next door to the library. He also owns Afikomen Judaica on Claremont Avenue. “It’s totally unbelievable. How many stands of redwood trees does a city have? You can’t just go out and plant more and expect them to grow back in 10 years.”

Nell Mahgel-Friedman said that the back of their apartment used to look out on a shady redwood grove. While there is more light now, there is also much more noise from University and San Pablo Avenues.

“The trees created a certain protection there, a quiet zone,” said Mahgel-Friedman. “With the redwood trees taken down it will be a changed experience.”

She doesn’t understand why the library could not have worked to preserve the redwood grove.

“What is most infuriating to me is why plans were made to build the library in a way that killed these trees,” said Mahgel-Friedman. “The small redwood grove that grew on the library grounds was a crown of the neighborhood, a small natural hidden gem in the midst of the urbanity and concrete. The library could have treasured this gift and adopted plans that protected and respected the trees, not sacrificed them for extra square footage.”

The library held numerous meetings with neighbors to talk about the library design, said Corbeil. The Mahgels did not attend, they said, which is why they were so surprised when the first redwood trees were cut down.

The library had intended to make the large redwood the centerpiece of a garden that could be seen from inside the library. The plan was to add native plants around the tree. Corbeil said the library will try to plant a mature tree in the redwood’s place. She does not anticipate there will be any delays in the construction of the new branch library. The branch at University Avenue shut down in May. The new building should be completed by the summer of 2013. Total construction costs, not including furniture and fixtures, are $7.5 million and are being paid through bonds authorized by Berkeley voters.

Read Donna Corbeil’s letter to neighbors.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...