(Image / Doug Clement Photography)

Despite growing public controversy, the City of Victoria has gone ahead with road redesigns at a downtown intersection that involved removing two prominent trees near the inner harbour.

The tree, located on an island at the intersection of Humboldt street and Government street, was roughly 40-years-old.

The tree’s removal was announced several weeks ago, and since then, many Victorians expressed a desire to protect the mature birch tree. Last Monday, an online petition, City of Victoria: Save the Tree at Humboldt and Government, was created and garnered over 1,100 signatures.

Many island residents were unsure as to why the tree had to come down, and feared that their concerns weren’t being heard.

“I thought I’d get some support, because everyone I asked about the tree were confused about why it would be cut down,” petition creator Katie Bernardo told Victoria Buzz.

“The support has been amazing though and I think it goes to show that people can have a voice whether it’s heard or not.”

Bernando said that she wished the tree could have been saved, and hopes that in the future more public consultation would be performed by the city before decisions were made.

“I’d recommend not moving to push something through without acknowledging positive and peaceful demonstrations against it. I think that gives people the impression that their concerns and thoughts are not valid, and really only creates opposition.”

“The lack of transparency here was a little astounding. Despite coming in a little late on this, our voices were noticed. They should have been acknowledged.”

A necessary decision

While the decision to remove the tree was difficult, it was also necessary, says Victoria’s Director of Engineering and Planning, Fraser Work.

The intersection of Humboldt street and Government street is one of the city’s busiest, especially during the summer, says Work.

As tourists flock to the inner harbour, many use the intersection to access the city’s Visitor Centre, one of the city’s main motivators for redesigning the traffic area.

“The focus of the design was really to optimize pedestrian flow of the zone,” he said.

According to the city, the triangular intersection could grow crowded, forcing pedestrians to cross long sections of the street or congregate against the sidewalk.

“When the design team from multiple departments looked at [the intersection] they looked at the tree as something they wanted to accommodate, but based on the volume of foot traffic and the vehicle volume and vehicle type it was [impossible],” he said.

Besides planning for more efficient pedestrian and traffic flow, the city said they needed space for a new protected bike lane route.

“Then we had to look at getting bikes through there with the future link that will connect along the inner harbour to James Bay,” said Work.

The question became “how can we design this intersection so that it acts complimentary to the flow of traffic,” he said.

“All of which made the designers go round and round then they determined there was no way to accommodate the tree and meet the safety requirements and functioning efficiency.”

While the large birch tree drew most of the public’s attention, its smaller aspen neighbour also had to be removed, as its roots were beginning to entangle with underground utilities.

“We all wish that we could’ve saved the trees and kept the safety arcs,” said Work.

What’s Next

While the decades-old tree and its neighbour had to be cut down, the city says that it plans on replacing the two missing trees with four more that are better suited to the climate.

“Whenever we look at designs we’re always striving to be as restorative as possible but we’re really limited because we operate in a built-out human environment downtown that has very specific constraints of space,” said Work.

The director of engineering said the city genuinely shares the public’s desire to protect Victoria’s urban forest.

“We definitely understand and feel the public’s comments on protecting and really retaining the urban forest… But that means from time to time tough decisions to cut down two trees and replace them with something [new] have to be made.”

After the tree was removed on Monday morning, petition creator Katie Bernardo sent out a final message to those who signed-on to protect the tree.

“A big thank you to all the support for our tree,” she said. “I’m speechless and heartbroken that they haven’t really acknowledged the request to stop. It was unnecessary to remove it.”

“If Lisa and council would like to include bikes, cars, and people in her planning, then perhaps she could consider the people who live in Victoria and cherish its beauty and uniqueness before tearing it all down. I don’t protest the bike lanes.”

“It was a tree that we loved. [I] just wanted her to keep it within her plans and include our voices too.”