Nearly two dozen ficus trees became the first casualties of a multimillion-dollar revitalization effort that began Wednesday in downtown Ventura.
Armed with chain saws and a city contract, construction crews from a Lomita tree service began chopping down the decades-old trees along three blocks, making room for the honey locusts and palms that eventually will take their place.
But even as the city's long-planned Renaissance Downtown project got under way, several merchants and bystanders complained that the umbrella-shaped trees should have been moved--or simply left where they stood--instead of being hacked down. Others called City Hall to voice concern.
"Those trees are really important for the aesthetics and the look of downtown," said Zoe Pietrycha, a 25-year-old college student who lives downtown.
"Couldn't they have kept the trees or moved them?" she asked. "They're lovely. To dine under palm trees in the hot sun doesn't make a lot of sense."
The work began along California Street, where ficus trees on both sides of the road north of Main Street were turned into piles of stumps and branches.
Outside one downtown restaurant, a freshly abandoned bird's nest sat atop a newly cut stump.
Trees along the east side of California south of Main Street also were chopped down Wednesday, and crews began dismantling wooden portals on Main between Chestnut and California streets.
Before the project is completed, the dozens of trees along California and Main between Chestnut and Figueroa streets will be cut down, city planner Patrick Richardson said.
"We took great lengths to explore the transplantation of the trees, but for a number of reasons it wasn't feasible," Richardson said. "A number of them would never have survived."
The root system of the ficus trees spread nearly as wide as the treetops, he said, and crews would have had to tear up the streets to move the trees.
"That would have driven up the cost significantly and would have made the project prohibitive," Richardson said. "Our consultant said even if we were willing to spend the money, less than 50% would have survived."
Councilman Gregory L. Carson said he received telephone messages from residents complaining about the clear-cut.
"They're just upset," said Carson, who runs an east Ventura nursery. "I feel the same way. I'm a nursery man. I don't like to take out trees.
"But there was a Specific Plan that was adopted that was a road map of what the city was to become," he said. "This is the community's plan, not my plan."
The downtown renovation is a four-month, $3.6-million face-lift that city officials hope will draw more tourists to the central city. It calls for widening sidewalks, replacing trees, repaving some roads and erecting new street lamps.
Construction is scheduled through July, with crews working shifts from 10 to 3:30 p.m. to limit disruption to local merchants. The schedule calls for sidewalk work to be completed one block at a time to minimize delays to traffic.
But many downtown visitors Wednesday were shocked at the sight of thick clumps of branches and stumps laying along three blocks of California Street.
"It's disturbing," said Lisa Flanders, a Ventura College student sipping coffee at a nearby cafe. "I was raised in Ventura, and I'm used to seeing them.
"Just riding by and seeing the trunks laying there on the sidewalks. . . . It didn't seem right."
Flanders said she thought the city had agreed to uproot the ficus trees and move them somewhere else. "I feel somewhat betrayed by the city," she said.
Downtown attorney Terrence Geoghegan said he did not like the idea of palm trees dotting the front of his office.
"I can understand the merchants wanting their shops more visible," he said. "But I still prefer these trees to the idea of palms."
Virginia Mendoza-Oneal, an education consultant with an office downtown, was taking photographs of the slashed ficus trees Wednesday. She called it a "historic day" for Ventura.
"It's a change that will be very positive for our city," she said. "We want people to come downtown and enjoy the city right by the ocean.
"We should go through a mourning process, but we can also feel hope and expectation about what's coming next."