The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Save eight old trees? Or build more affordable housing? A D.C. development dilemma.

Sursum Corda, a low-income housing complex, in the shade of a tree in 2005. (Michel duCille/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The eight majestic willow oaks flourished for decades. Kids played hide-and-seek among their trunks. They shaded nearly a hundred years of first kisses, long talks and lazy afternoons. And they were the silent witnesses to the drug deals, the arguments, the shootings and the homicides, too.

Still healthy, strong and thick-trunked, these eight sentinels of D.C.’s turbulent history — among the finest urban heritage trees in the city — will be lumber soon.

Development, you know. Glass towers and quartz counters.

Outrage? Of course!

Nearly a thousand emails flooded the inboxes of city leaders this week when the tree people spoke up for the trees.

These are heritage trees, after all. That means, according to a law enacted in 2016, these babes get special status because their girth is at least 100 inches around. Yes, in the tree world, thick means power.

Not only are these trees gorgeous, researchers are now using them and the coolness they provide as a measure of income inequality in American cities.

Lush trees are more likely in wealthier neighborhoods. Less affluent neighborhoods — concrete jungles with few big trees — create heat islands that have been measured between 5 and 20 degrees hotter than their leafier neighbors.

Sursum Corda is on the line between Northwest D.C. and Northeast D.C., and it is one of the city’s biggest heat islands, an average of 17 degrees hotter than the rest of the city when our Capital Weather Gang measured it last year.

Northeast D.C. is a heat island in the nation’s capital

But slow your roll, Lorax. This one’s a little more complicated.

The trees are being removed to make way for more condos and apartments, yes. But this is also about affordable housing. Not a ton of affordable housing, but ideally enough to house 122 of the families who were displaced when the notorious housing complex that stood there, Sursum Corda, was razed.

“Our city is facing a lot of complex problems,” said Jessica Sanders, director of science and policy for Casey Trees, the city’s nonprofit guardians of the tree canopy. “And what we’re trying to do is take on those complex problems. Because we do support affordable housing.”

These old trees towered over the tangle of courtyards and streets that were created in 1968 as Sursum Corda, Latin for “lift up your hearts,” a village for low-income residents of the city created by Catholic activists who also organized tutoring and services for the residents.

It was a revolutionary affordable-housing project with air conditioning, washers and dryers and garbage disposals in every unit. And, it had been built around those majestic trees, some of them already decades old.

But the 1980s were rough on Sursum Corda. The inward-facing concept for a quaint village also made it an ideal open-air drug market. It became a violent, frightening place that hosted one of D.C.’s truly horrific murders years later, in 2004 — the killing of a 14-year-old Jahkema Princess Hansen, who spoke to detectives the day before she was killed about another murder she witnessed.

The execution of a child witness was just about the end of Sursum Corda. As gleaming new buildings sprouted around the block, it struggled as the Sursum Corda Cooperative Association tried to redevelop and find a buyer who’d keep affordable housing intact.

Faith in Sursum Corda developers is low

Toll Brothers, the billion-dollar developers from Pennsylvania, bought it for $60 million last year, agreed to most of the development plan and demolition finally began.

Bulldozers roared in, the units were flattened. But the heritage trees remained standing.

Oops. The plans were approved, it turned out, before the heritage tree law was enacted.

So council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who helped write the heritage tree law, tried to introduce legislation this week that would give Toll Brothers a special hall pass to cut the trees in exchange for a fine.

“Arborists have determined that the trees would not survive attempts to be moved and transplanted elsewhere,” Allen explained on Facebook, after the tree folks started protesting. “And efforts to redesign the previously approved siting of the buildings would result in construction immediately next to the trees, likely endangering their health and reducing the number of housing units being created.”

This isn’t easy, of course, because the tree people affordable-housing people are usually one and the same.

“The creation of much needed affordable housing is paramount for our city and community,” Allen wrote.

But the tree people worried this would set a precedent, tempting any moneybags developer to throw in an affordable unit or two and haul out the chain saw.

So, at the last minute, Allen pulled the legislation this week, preventing a legal precedent.

That essentially gives the developer the go-ahead to kill the trees, the most likely scenario.

The good news? The developers paid a $270,000 fine into the city’s tree fund, and those eight trees will become lumber donated to the Urban Wood for Schools program.

The bad news? It’ll be at least another 20 years before anyone moving into those fancy new places will have a big, sprawling patch of shade to relax in.

Twitter: @petulad

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