Leo Grossinger, left, and Joey Grossinger play at an oak tree in the traffic circle at Russell and Fulton streets on Thursday. Photo: Daniel M. Kim

In response to a significant community outcry, the city has taken a step back from a plan to remove “any and all trees” from the 60 or so traffic circles scattered throughout Berkeley neighborhoods to slow motorists down.

City manager Dee Williams-Ridley said Tuesday that staff will assess the circles on a case-by-case basis in a process that will definitely involve all interested neighbors: “We are going to work with the community and the volunteers who have dedicated so much time to this. We want to support them. That’s not going to change.”

Last week, more than a dozen local residents turned up at the final Berkeley City Council meeting of the season to speak out about a July 24 letter from the Public Works Department that had announced plans for the tree removal and other maintenance efforts. Community members said there had been no public notice or effort to collaborate with neighbors, and asked for a reprieve.

Williams-Ridley announced the new “case-by-case” plan that night, and said the city is “working to ensure visibility” at the circles, but would involve neighbors in that process as much as possible. But, according to staff, neighbors will no longer be allowed to handle direct maintenance or watering of the circles themselves.

Williams-Ridley explained this week that the initial Public Works letter had been the result of staff trying to be proactive and improve intersection safety quickly. But she acknowledged that the city needed to slow down and work with neighbors to create a collaborative plan.

The circle at Ellsworth and Stuart in January 2018. Image: Google Maps

The city has said “legal challenges” prompted the recent Public Works announcement. As it turns out, staff is working toward a $2.15 million settlement deal after a woman was struck in a crosswalk at Stuart and Ellsworth streets in December 2015. She survived but suffered serious injuries, according to court papers.

Phil Harrington, who runs the city’s Public Works Department, said Wednesday the city has set out three steps to move ahead with improving traffic circle safety.

First, it will take a close look at the circles that have no volunteers or landscaping, and create pilot demonstration projects in a few of them so neighbors get a sense of the city’s vision.

Then, the city will look at all the traffic circles that have no trees to figure out what sort of maintenance needs to be done. There will be a public meeting where neighbors can come to share feedback.

The last step will be to look at the six or seven traffic circles that have large trees, and have on-site meetings and discussions with neighbors about those intersections. The city arborist will be closely involved in the effort.

Harrington said that work is likely to begin in late September or October.

But the city has already taken several steps to get a handle on the situation, he said. Staff has completed an assessment of all the city’s traffic circles to look at what’s growing now. They found that 31 of the traffic circles have trees of some kind, including live oaks, coastal oaks, dawn redwoods, cypress trees and crepe myrtles.

A man rides a bike past a traffic circle at Parker and Ellsworth streets Thursday. Photo: Daniel M. Kim

Staff is also working to rebuild its database of the community volunteers who have been maintaining some of the traffic circles. That list had essentially become defunct. There used to be someone who oversaw or kept track of the volunteers but, over the years and due to to budget and staffing challenges, the program had largely been forgotten.

Going forward, the city will manage the volunteer program, and it will also take over all maintenance of the circles, Harrington said, now that staff has more resources to handle both. He said the city hopes neighbors will be involved in discussions about maintenance and could help with plant selection and perhaps the shaping of landscaping. But they will no longer be allowed to do the actual maintenance or watering.

But he said a claim made by a community member at last week’s council meeting — that a $100,000 Public Works contract for the maintenance is in the works — is false.

As for the plants and trees in the circles now, the city says it will take a close look at all of them.

“Our intent is not to go pull out established landscaping if all it really needs is to be pruned or cut back to get it within height restrictions,” Harrington said. “We’re not going to pull out existing landscaping that’s perfectly good just to replace it.”

He said what the city will be reviewing is “line of sight” through the intersections, with an emphasis on safety for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians, “to make sure everything is maintained in compliance going forward.”

“Making sure we don’t put in harm’s way any pedestrian or bicyclist by our actions is the primary objective of the city of Berkeley,” Harrington said.

Robin Grossinger, a resident near Fulton and Russell streets, where a large oak has been growing in a traffic circle for more than a decade, said he had been happy to see so many neighbors mobilize — and is cautiously optimistic about what seems to be a more sensitive approach now by the city.

“I’m really pleased that the conversation has started,” he said. “But there’s still a feeling of nervousness. Nobody has said ‘moratorium.'”

Speaking to the City Council last week about the “fairly iconic live oak tree” in his neighborhood, Grossinger told officials how his sons, Leo and Joey, had “grown up taking care of this tree” and found it to be “a source of wonder.”

“They would be absolutely devastated to see that cut down,” he said. “They’ve grown up with it their entire life.”

City manager Williams-Ridley said the city is committed to a thoughtful process.

This is one of those times you have to take your time, be methodical and work with the community,” she said, “so we don’t negate the hours and years of volunteer efforts that have gone into play here.”

Wednesday’s meeting will take place from 5:30–6:30 p.m. on the sixth floor of the Civic Center building at 2180 Milvia St.

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...