A man rides a bike past a traffic circle on the intersection of Parker and Ellsworth in Berkeley, Calif. Thursday, August 2, 2018. Photo: Daniel M. Kim

More than two months after a neighborhood outcry over the fate of trees and plants in Berkeley’s traffic circles, the city has not yet decided what role neighbors may play in tending them in the future.

Tuesday afternoon, the city announced a community meeting for next week, Oct. 23, to provide some background on the history of the circles, and an update about what comes next.

City staff last met with neighbors in August after announcing that trees in Berkeley traffic circles would be removed in the interest of safety. Neighbors were upset, and staff promised to put any big decisions on hold until there could be more of a public process.

Berkeley Public Works Director Phil Harrington said Tuesday that a decision about what neighbors will be allowed to do has yet to be made: “Right now I’m just establishing communication with the community groups and listening to their concerns … to see if we can connect on some common goals and objectives.”

Staff said back in August that neighbors, some of whom have been tending the traffic circles for quite awhile, would no longer be able to do any direct maintenance due to liability issues, among other reasons. Staff also said the city now has more capacity to take on the job, and would do so going forward. Staff said neighbors would be consulted, but could only provide an advisory role.

Neighbors pushed back hard and the city said it would consider letting them do more. Staff made no commitment however, and said another meeting would take place in the future, along with further discussion. Now, the time for that meeting has come.

A man rides a bike past a traffic circle at Ward and Fulton streets. Photo: Daniel M. Kim

Back on Aug. 8, several dozen neighbors concerned about the fate of Berkeley’s traffic circles attended a meeting with staff, Mayor Jesse Arreguín, Councilwoman Lori Droste and Councilman Ben Bartlett.

Staff apologized for telling neighbors that decisions had already been made about the circles, and promised to slow down the process — including the calling off of any immediate removal of trees.

After some initial comments, neighbors all around the room shared their stories and perspectives at length. Many reported deep connections with their neighborhood traffic circles and said the city would be wise to take note.

Rafael Jesús González, Berkeley’s poet laureate, described some of the history behind the traffic circle in his neighborhood: “We were very clear that what we were doing was a sacred act,” he said, of the ceremony to recognize the creation of the circle where he lives. The ceremony involved “calling in the four directions,” he said. Before planting the tree in the circle, neighbors buried quartz, jade, turquoise and mother of pearl — “the sacred elements.”

“It brought the community together,” González said. “We have to look at what makes Berkeley Berkeley — and that is the community, the spirit that we bring together, and that commitment to beauty, truth and love. We have to honor those uncodifiable elements that lend meaning.”

One neighbor described what he saw as a recent botched pruning job on his South Berkeley block: Trees he had tended for years had been damaged beyond repair by city workers, he said.

The man said neighbors who live in Berkeley would do a more careful job tending to the circles than city workers might do, if the “brutal modifying of trees” that happened in his neighborhood was any indication: “If this is the best the city can do, let us do it.”

His comments seemed to capture the will of many in the room, and were met with applause.

“We’ll just do it a lot more sensitively,” the man continued. “I planted some of these trees. They’re not going to recover. They can never look in my lifetime like they used to.”

Other neighbors said the time has come for the city to formalize its relationships with volunteer groups that care for parks and other areas. To date, they’ve said, there has been little coordination and sometimes tension over how best to manage the two perspectives.

“I think that’s a really excellent point,” Mayor Arreguín said, in response to the suggestion.

Neighbors said they wanted to continue to care for the circles and that the city should expand its list of allowable plantings. Over the summer, the city released a list of specifications for traffic circle vegetation, and said this had been largely dictated by an interest in public safety and creating a “line of sight” from one side of an intersection to the other.

Neighbors said they are willing to work with the city’s guidelines, particularly if the specifications can be revised to be more flexible. They noted that new signs the city had installed in some circles were so low to the ground that they actually block more views than any existing vegetation. Neighbors also said they had taken it upon themselves already to cut back or remove problematic plants, and would continue to do so.

“Many of us really want to continue to maintain our circles and do it right,” one woman told the city. “People in Berkeley want to be involved, so let’s make it a positive experience.”

John Steere, who runs volunteer group Berkeley Partners for Parks, said the city had reached “a low point … around stewardship” in the past 15 years.

“You can see the wisdom in this room that’s been neglected,” he said. He said the traffic circles were created as part of a city-community partnership and urged the city to invest in a coordinator — similar to Oakland’s approach — to ensure the city is making the most of those who want to donate their time and energy. He said the traffic circle discussion could be a turning point in that relationship.

“Engage the neighborhoods,” he said. “We should not be having private contractors maintain these circles.”

Councilwoman Droste said it might also make sense for the city to lower its criteria for traffic-calming measures so more neighborhoods have the benefit of elements that make streets safer.

Mayor Arreguín said it was also important to acknowledge that the trees “in and of themselves are not the cause of unsafe conditions at intersections.”

In late September, Droste, the mayor, Bartlett and Councilwoman Cheryl Davila asked for the creation of a new city-community task force to take a closer look at the traffic circle issue.

The plan to overhaul and review the city’s traffic circle landscaping was released soon after the city announced a $2.15 million settlement deal it had reached 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.

At the time of the August meeting, neighbors also noted that some of the traffic circle trees had been painted with a white dot, which they were told indicated the trees would be removed. None of the city staff in attendance were able to explain definitively where the white dots had come from, but promised no trees would be removed in the near-term.

Another woman in the room told the city she would not go quietly if her neighborhood tree, a dawn redwood, was at risk. The tree had a white dot on it at the time of the meeting.

“I’m going to turn it into a green dot with a peace sign in it,” she said. “If it comes down to it, I’m going to chain myself to that tree.”

She called the dawn redwood “my tree,” adding, “I will put my body in front of it.”

Over the summer, staff completed an assessment of all the city’s traffic circles to look at what’s growing now. They found that 31 of the circles have trees, including live oaks, coastal oaks, dawn redwoods, cypress trees and crepe myrtles. Six or seven of the traffic circles have large trees, according to the inventory.

In total, Berkeley has 60 or so traffic circles scattered throughout its neighborhoods to slow motorists down.

Meeting details

Public Works staff will hold a community meeting regarding traffic circle landscaping Tuesday, Oct. 23, from 6-7:30 p.m. at the Frances Albrier Community Center at 2800 Park St. The primary purpose of the meeting, the city said, is to provide an opportunity for the community to help inform the vision and maintenance plan for landscaping in all City traffic circles. See the agenda.

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...