Palisades Mass Tree Death Leaves Street Broken and Bare

Save our trees
Rich Schmitt/Staff Photographer

By JOHN HARLOW | Editor-in-Chief

Palisades Drive, once mooted as a scenic highway to the Valley before The Highlands sprung out of the earth, is losing its canopy faster than anywhere else in Pacific Palisades.

According to a new count, there are now 108 dead, dying or blighted trees on both sides of the drive within its first few hundred yards from the Sunset intersection.

There are large square cemented holes in the sidewalk like arboreal graves marking where dogwood and western sycamore once flowered.

Unlike elsewhere in the Palisades, where the city, residents, homeowner associations or businesses protect some of the trees against drought and pest, Highlands residents say that the half-century-old plantings have been abandoned by city and local interests in a wasteland of upturned sidewalks and bare or distressed trees.

The problem has risen to the top of the agenda because other issues—clearing out a blocked spring and removing homelessness camps—have been resolved, for now.

Now, for the first time in many years, a volunteer task force is seeking to work around the legal and bureaucratic issues that have made these trees uniquely vulnerable in the Palisades.

Bruce Schwartz, a Realtor known for his one-man campaign to regrow plants in Sunset medians, has joined up with the area’s departing Pacific Palisades Community Council representative Peter Culhane to wheedle new trees out of the city.

Together with Palisadians David Dwyer, Leah Cox and Alan Goldsmith, they are seeking to turn back the clock to when Palisades Drive blossomed with life-giving shade trees.

Some of the trees, especially palms, look healthy but dozens of others are still sparsely blooming, even before the summer heat, said Culhane, who helped count the trees.

They were not listed in the 1986 guidebook to local trees by botanist Grace L. Heintz.

The book, “Trees of Pacific Palisades,” published by the gardening and green lobbying group Palisades Beautiful showed the drive as barren, because at that time, it was still so architecturally raw. It could be heading back that way.

Barbara Marinacci, of Palisades Beautiful, said she last tried to rouse public awareness about the Highlands issue eight years ago, speaking to city agencies such as the Bureau of Street Services, who did not even have them on their map. But the plight has only grown worse.

While a recent Palisadian-Post survey suggested that in some streets, 20 percent of the trees listed in the Heintz book have vanished, on Palisades Drive it’s closer to 50 percent.

Part of the conundrum, Marinacci and Culhane said, is legal evolution in creating safe spaces for the disabled—meaning that fallen trees often cannot be replaced on the narrow Palisades Drive sidewalks.

Lisa Cahill, area representative at Councilmember Mike Bonin’s office, is said to be working out how to save the drive’s sidewalk canopy.

By contrast, Marinacci said, the drive’s median is blooming because it is maintained by Rebecca Wade of the Summit Club Homeowners Association at the top of The Highlands.

The club showed what can be done, homeowners said, if more local businesses and residents banded together.

Culhane, who has made regreening the drive one of his last campaigns as PPCC Highlands rep, before he stands for the vice-chair at the community council, against another effective area rep, Rick Mills, said that it would only take a few locals to change the landscape.

“We could find replacement trees and local landlords could take on some watering duties. It would not be too expensive, and it would show how we can work together.”

In The Highlands, still raw and divided after the planning battle for developer Ronny Shram’s eldercare facility, an issue that could be decided by the Coastal Commission later this year, finding a common task to save and recreate green beauty could prove to be a soothing balm.

And an exemplar for the rest of Pacific Palisades.