Paul Zollo knows what sweeping government authority sounds like. It's the noise a chain saw makes as it chews through a ficus tree on Hollywood Boulevard.
Zollo and other Hollywood residents expressed outrage last week when Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority workers chopped down 31 large ficus trees near Hollywood and Vine as part of a project to build a Metro Rail subway stop. That the transit agency gave residents less than 24 hours' notice, he said, was the unkindest cut of all.
"Trees are not like furniture," said Zollo, a musician and journalist. "If they get in the way, you don't just get rid of them."
Los Angeles city officials said that because of special exemptions granted to MTA over two years ago, the transit agency was not required to hold public hearings over the tree removal. Nevertheless, Councilwoman member Jackie Goldberg plans to introduce a motion next week to curb the agency's power to landscape without hearing from residents. In the coming months, construction work will begin on two more subway stations on the boulevard, at Highland and Western avenues.
"We knew (the trees) would be removed, but not chopped down," said Veronica Gutierrez, an aide to Goldberg.
Steve Chesser, an MTA spokesman, said the agency discussed replanting the ficus trees in another location but rejected the idea because the roots were too extensive. He added that the agency would landscape the Hollywood-and-Vine area with Mexican fan palms and ficus trees at the subway stop's scheduled 1998 opening.
The ficus fracas comes amid a larger struggle between city officials and Hollywood residents, some of whom have vigorously opposed both Metro Rail construction and longstanding government attempts to redevelop the neighborhood. Just last year, local activists bitterly complained when the Community Redevelopment Agency removed ficus trees along the boulevard as part of a beautification effort.
City officials could not immediately confirm the age of those ficus trees, but Bobbie Green, a superintendent for the Department of Public Works, said they have grown there for at least 30 years. He was unsure whether they had been originally planted by the city or residents, but noted that boulevard merchants pay the city to have the trees trimmed twice a year.
Under city laws, Green said, anyone wishing to remove a tree must obtain a permit, a process that involves inspections and public hearings and can take longer than 60 days. Yet the public works department agreed to exempt MTA from that requirement in January, 1992.
"We were just trying to cooperate with Metro Rail and expedite their (construction) requests," Green said.
Zollo and other residents said they knew nothing of the exemption, and did not learn of the planned tree removal until May 16, the morning the cutting occurred, when MTA workers posted flyers dated the previous Friday. Chesser said public meetings had been held previously on the subject of tree removal but he could not immediately provide details.
"This just proves our point," said longtime activist Robert Nudelman. MTA, he said, has "no interest in keeping people informed; they just want to do whatever they want, whenever they want."
Gutierrez said that Goldberg, in her motion next week, will ask Public Works to rescind the MTA exemption in an effort to prevent tree removal at the Highland and Western avenues stops. In the meantime, Hollywood residents are left contemplating their newly denuded corner.
"These trees provided oxygen and shade," said Zollo, "both of which Hollywood Boulevard desperately needs."