Manheim Park tree removals spark protests

Replacing the cracked and buckled sidewalks in Kansas City’s Manheim Park neighborhood means some mature trees must be cut down.

Everyone agrees on that. What’s in dispute is how many trees are too many.

“This is a significant destruction,” said artist Bill Drummond, who lives in a commercial building on Troost Avenue and has been leading a protest against the cuttings.

So far, 37 tall sycamores have been felled in Manheim’s southern half to make way for new walks, while 31 to 35 others probably will fall when work resumes next week or the following week.

Drummond and other environmentalists — some of whom live in Manheim and many who do not — have been protesting the tree removal since shortly after the work began this month. They hoped to convince city officials to find alternative sidewalk construction methods that would save the trees.

But they were disappointed to learn at a meeting with city officials Friday that the work will go ahead. It’s just a matter of when.

The decision is not at all disappointing to neighborhood leaders, past and present, of the Historic Manheim Park Neighborhood Association. Sad as they are to lose some big trees, they say the free sidewalks can’t come soon enough.

“The neighbors that I’ve talked to personally want their sidewalks fixed,” association president Saundra Hayes said.

Her predecessor, Rodney Knott, agreed.

“We’re cutting down a few trees so people in wheelchairs and the elderly can walk in their neighborhood,” he said.

Normally, city policy is for adjacent property owners to pay the cost of sidewalk maintenance and replacement.

But Manheim Park — from 39th Street to Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard, Troost Avenue to the Paseo — is in the Green Impact Zone, a 150-block urban core area targeted in 2009 to receive a large chunk of federal stimulus money. Some $20 million alone is being spent on sidewalk and curb replacement in several areas, including Ivanhoe and the 49-63 neighborhoods.

Some $1.6 million is earmarked for Manheim, where the need is obvious. Many sidewalks are heaving and broken to the point that pedestrians find it safer to walk in the street.

One big reason for the damage: bulging tree roots.

Officials said they do their best to save trees when replacing sidewalks across the city, but construction damages the roots to the point that trees might fall in a high wind.

Detouring around the roots isn’t possible in many cases because of retaining walls and fences. But even where it would work, officials say, that would require getting easements from property owners, which might take weeks or months.

And quite frankly, they say, they are too far along for that to happen here. Planning was done long ago and a deadline looms. All sidewalk work in the Green Impact Zone must be done by next September, when the federal money spigot shuts off.

A long delay would mean the area’s low-income residents would have to pay for the work in the future, city spokesman Dennis Gagnon said.

Officials also point out that they are leaving twice as many trees standing in the right of way (145) as they are cutting down in the south half of Manheim.

Fewer trees will be removed when work begins in the northern half, where only 29 trees need to be cut.

Those numbers did not appease protesters.

“I feel it’s an environmental justice issue,” said Jill DeWitt, who lives in Kansas City’s Crestwood neighborhood..

She, Drummond and others say the city would make more accommodation for the trees if this project were in a wealthier neighborhood.

“If this were over by Ward Parkway, this would be fixed,” he said.

Not necessarily. A few years ago, Brookside residents were saddened when a sidewalk project in the 5800 block of Locust Street resulted in 13 of 20 large trees being cut down on one block.

“These were 60-foot-tall oaks,” one neighbor said. “I will never live to see their replacement.”

In Manheim, the city has promised to plant saplings — slow-growing hardwoods with roots less likely to ruin the sidewalks.