Would renowned businesswoman and educator Maggie L. Walker be OK with uprooting a perfectly good tree to make way for a statue in her honor?
Fans of the Southern live oak that towers over an intersection where her memorial is planned are asking city planners to consider the question. And at least one businessman is giving the city a warning bark and growl.
“You touch the tree, you are going to have a battle on your hands,” says Kevin Korda, who owns the nearby Renovation Resources.
A life-sized statue of Walker is planned for the triangle where Adams Street and Brook Road intersect with Broad Street. It’s planned for completion next fall, with the surrounding area becoming a plaza where viewers can interact with the memorial.
Designs aren’t finalized, but city officials say they’re considering whether to remove the tree to make way for the changes or let it remain.
Korda says they can coexist. So do a number of Jackson Ward business owners and residents who are clamoring for the tree to stay.
Live oaks are rarely seen in cities and can live to be more than 900 years old, which makes this specimen of about 40 years not even middle-aged. About 25 years ago, it replaced a pine tree that gave the triangle the name Lone Pine Park. Before that, its center was a watering trough — now behind a statue of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in Jackson Ward.
Mariah Robinson, who lives behind Nick’s Produce, has collected nearly 50 signatures from business owners and residents on a petition to save the tree.An online petition titled "Woodman, Spare that Tree" has garnered over 800 signatures.
“I think it’s brilliant — I’m very happy to welcome Maggie to our corner,” Korda says. “But I think that if Maggie Walker were alive today she would say to Mayor Jones, ‘How could you take down such a magnificent tree?’”
Melvin Jones, who for years has pushed the city to erect the statue, says that he thinks the limbs of the tree can “be cut back” so that it can share the plot with the statue.
The city’s director of urban planning and development review, Mark Olinger, says the city plans to work with a landscape architect and artist Antonio Tobias “Toby” Mendez — hired to sculpt Walker — to make a decision.
The city commissioned Mendez with $300,000 from its $3.2 million public art fund.
“We are not going to have someone design a plaza and plop a piece of art in it,” Olinger says. “The space will work as a whole.”
The discussions on the overall appearance of the plaza won’t start until after the first of the year, Olinger says. But a rough layout of a potential plan drafted by city staff considers a scenario in which the tree is removed and part of Brook Road is closed.
Olinger says the layout was to give the city an idea of how to work through details such as where to replace parking after the street closure, and that “the tree may go away given the constraints of the site.”
Doug Cole, a member of the city’s Planning Commission, says he’s open to considering plans with or without the tree. When asked about how other cities would handle the issue, he says that in Charleston, South Carolina, for example, a live oak wouldn’t be cut down without a variance showing significant hardship.
Cole’s landscape-design business, Cite-Design, at 310 N. Adams St., has a view of the tree through the glass of its front door. And from it, Cole can see another controversy brewing: The city wants to close the section of Brook Road that fronts the triangle to help create the plaza.
Some business owners say they’re concerned about falling property values because their businesses no longer would have front street access or convenient delivery options.
There also are concerns that the change would ruin the historic character of the street, which was used as a north to south travel route during the Revolutionary and Civil wars.
Jennie Dotts, a local preservationist who lives in Church Hill, says closing the road would hurt the public’s ability to understand the area’s architectural history.
“You can’t move its beginning or end to some imaginary point. The buildings along this historic entrance and terminus bend to its irregular, diagonal shape,” she says. “That evidence will be lost when the road is erased.”
The Planning Commission will hold a hearing on the street closure Dec. 7, before the matter goes before City Council for a vote. But that action wouldn’t directly address the tree’s future — only how the plaza will take shape.
Some Jackson Ward business owners say they want to see design plans for the plaza and statue placement before the planning commission considers the feasibility of closing the street.
Korda says that he believes that the city isn’t really interested in hearing what business owners or residents have to say about the plan, since consideration of the street closure has come before final designs.
“When the Mayor wants it, he’s going to get it,” Korda says. “[But] a lot of us are down here with our futures on the line, we are looking at it every day.”
But Chris Arias, a member of the city’s urban design committee, says that a design shouldn’t happen without first considering the street closure. (FULL DISCLOSURE: Arias is married to Style's food and drink editor Brandon Fox)
“You look into the schematics. You can’t go into a redesign without realizing that twice a week a semi has to come in to make deliveries,” Arias says. “You want to fully understand the pragmatic aspects of the design before you move forward too far.”