By Michael Coughlin Jr.
Hundreds of Jamaica Plain residents are making their voices heard, advocating for preserving a 150-year-old oak tree that could be taken down due to a project at 72 Hyde Park Avenue.
In the summer of 2022, the Zoning Board of Appeal (ZBA) approved the project that would bring six housing units to the neighborhood, with the proviso that it undergo design review from the Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) and was subsequently approved.
Matt Shuman, a resident who has been at the forefront of the movement to preserve the tree, claims that back in the timeframe of February, March, and April of 2022 when this project went before the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC), the project’s Developer, Vladimir Sirotin of M.I.R Realty, allegedly committed to keeping the tree.
Fast forward to August of 2023, with the project set to move forward, a resident saw a tree removal service on the property. This resident, who was also of the mindset the tree was being preserved, stopped the tree removal service from taking it down.
Sirotin acknowledged in initial conversations with the community that there was an intention to preserve the tree — “if feasible.” However, he indicated that “unforeseen requirements” arose during the project’s engineering process.
“What no one foresaw at the time was the necessity for a stormwater management system, which, unfortunately, could only be accommodated precisely where the tree stands,” wrote Sirotin in a statement to the Gazette.
“As soon as we received the engineering plans and realized this predicament, we diligently explored alternative options for the system’s placement to save the tree. Regrettably, there were no viable alternatives,” he continued.
Moreover, Sirotin also explained that they immediately contacted a Neighborhood Liaison in the Mayor’s Office in February but wrote, “We have not received any further communication from their end.”
Sirotin, in addition to the written statement to the Gazette, also supplied a written statement from a state-registered Professional Engineer explaining why keeping the tree is not feasible.
The written statement identifies not only the aforementioned stormwater management issue but also excavation that would damage the tree’s roots, the grade needed to make the building handicap accessible, the safety of future homeowners, and the safety of workers attempting to excavate under the tree as reasons why the tree cannot be saved.
Amidst residents’ concerns about the tree’s potential removal, Sirotin detailed that he not only met with the project’s architect on-site but also held two Zoom meetings with the architect and engineers to come up with alternatives but wrote, “Sadly, the conclusion remained unchanged.”
Then, on September 22, a meeting was held, which included residents, elected officials, Sirotin, and his team.
Although Shuman alleges that he and other residents were in contact with Sirotin before this meeting to come to a resolution where the tree was preserved, nothing came to fruition.
During the meeting, Sirotin wrote that he, his architect, and attorney “provided a comprehensive presentation on the process and the outcome.” Later, adding, “We made it clear from the outset that saving the tree was not feasible.”
It should be noted that Sirotin wrote that he committed to planting mature trees in place of the 150-year-old oak at this meeting.
Later, concluding, “I want to emphasize that I take solace in knowing that we did everything within our power to preserve the tree, and my conscience is clear.”
Following the meeting, Shuman says he gave up. “I was done with it. I said you know we lost, we appealed, we met, we talked, we tried the carrot, we tried the stick, nothing’s working,” said Shuman.
Although Shuman had given up, just days later, a curveball in the situation has kept the tree standing at least a bit longer.
As previously mentioned, some residents were under the impression that the tree was being preserved. They were not the only ones — the BPDA was, too.
According to a statement sent from the BPDA to community members during the last week of September, the plans the agency initially approved included the tree.
The statement, in part, reads, “Plans that the BPDA approved show the tree in question on the site plan. As a result, it was the BPDA’s understanding that the tree would remain.”
Moreover, the statement also indicated that since the agency had realized the project was proceeding with a revised plan — they did not approve — they had requested and since received revised plans that are now under review.
Additionally, the statement mentioned that the BPDA has contacted the Inspectional Services Department about “the discrepancy between the BPDA’s approval and the current site plans.”
When Shuman learned that the BPDA was reviewing the revised plans, he sent out an email blast telling residents to send emails to the agency urging them to save the tree.
Since Shuman’s email blast, over 200 emails have been sent to the BPDA requesting that the tree be preserved.
In describing why he thought residents felt so strongly about trying to preserve the tree, Shuman mentioned the psychological and health benefits of trees.
He also said, “I think people have rightly pointed out this is a 150-year-old tree that is not replaceable in our lifetimes, it’s not replaceable really likely in our children’s lifetimes, so it’s an asset to the community that people feel I think a special responsibility to protect.”
Regarding coming to a resolution, Shuman did not find Sirotin’s commitment to plant mature trees in lieu of the 150-year-old oak acceptable, saying, “I think it felt like a very minor commitment on his part.”
“It’s like telling your kid that their dog died and giving them a piece of candy,” he added.
Overall, Shuman believed there was no acceptable resolution that did not involve keeping the tree, even with many folks wanting housing.
“We want the housing; our group is pro-housing, and we’re excited about the six units; it’s great we want the housing,” said Shuman.
“From February of 2022 up until last month, we thought we were getting housing and a tree, and that’s what we want.”
As of Wednesday, October 11, Brittany Comak, the BPDA’s Assistant Director of Communications, says the agency is reviewing the revised plans.
“We are reviewing the revised site plan and working with the proponent as they explore alternate site layouts. As with all site design review, we assess the presence and location of mature trees among other site and building considerations,” said Comak.