UPDATED, Feb. 28, 2020: Three trees in Whittemore Park, in Arlington Center at Mass. Ave. and Mystic Street in front of the Jefferson Cutter House, will be taken down, as unanimously approved by the Select Board at its Monday, Feb. 24, meeting. The 5-0 vote came after a series of speakers pleaded to retain the tees.

Selectboard logo, May 20, 2019

“The trees identified for removal are a 15-inch Norway maple, a 22-inch Norway maple and a 15-inch yellowwood. These trees are in poor condition,” said Naomi Cottrell, of Crowley Cottrell Landscape Architects of Boston, a firm hired to design and implement the park’s renovation.

In a letter to the Select Board, Ali Carter, Arlington’s economic-development coordinator, writes that nine new native trees will be planted.

“In nine years, the new trees will sequester [carbon] as much as the trees today, and after that, more,” said Cottrell.

Goals seeking improvements

“The goal is to improve the park’s circulation, visibility and prominence; sponsor more events; and enhance this natural and historical landscape,” said Carter at the meeting.

Cottrell said, “The existing park has many great assets, and we want to balance them in renovating the park. We want to improve the space, yet preserve trees, the railroad tracks and some existing landscaping features. 

“We want Whittemore Park to be more unified. Currently, the places to stop and rest focus on Mass. Ave., not on the interior space. We want to create a space, not just a cut-through, with benches that are interior focused, so people can access and experience the totality of the park. 

“We’re proposing a circular path around the lawn, which will provide an opportunity for more direct access to the tracks. The current paths cut the track into two fragmented structures. Having pathways without dead ends will have real value, and a loop provides a lot of circulation and connectivity to all areas of the park.

“The new path will thread through the yellowwood tree, which doesn’t provide much shade to that area.” 

Residents express disapproval

Eleven Arlington residents wrote letters of objection to the Select Board, and nine people spoke at the meeting:

Ellen Lee said, “I’m concerned about the removal of healthy trees. Whittemore Park is popular, and usage has increased over the past few years. I’m in a wheelchair and can use and enjoy it. It’s a peaceful oasis, and it’s getting hotter each year.

“We need the carbon and shade cover that the trees provide. Special-needs people and the elderly often have trouble with temperature regulation. If we reduce shade cover, I would find it too dangerous to use the park. We’re removing the tallest trees, which provide the most shade cover. With new trees, it would take many years to reach the current amount of shade cover. The park would be less usable, and too risky for the elderly and anyone with a health condition. Let’s find a work-around so we can preserve the trees.” 

Rachael Stark, Walking in Arlington founder and chair, said, “We advocate for walking and walkability in Arlington. People like walking on tree-lined streets and want to walk to tree-shaded parks.

“Whittemore Park is in the middle of 10 lanes of traffic. It is noisy and full of exhaust fumes. The only thing that keeps the park nice are the shade trees. Cutting down mature trees in the middle of town is not the way to maintain a nice park. Make the paths go around the trees. Existing mature trees are survivors, whereas newly planted trees often die. Keep the trees we have. They’re beautiful, and make the park usable.”

Town Meeting member Jo Ann Preston said, “I represent Precinct 9, which encompasses Whittemore Park. We’d like to preserve the trees. The town tree warden deemed all three trees as healthy. The walkway could be anywhere in the park, but seems to be in the way of three healthy shade trees. Design should follow function. These trees are highly functional and remove lots of carbon. It’ll be a long time before the new trees are able to remove the amount of carbon the mature trees currently remove. I request that the designers make small changes in their plans to preserve the trees.” 

Mara Vatz and Susan Stamps, tree committee members, oppose the removal of the yellowwood tree. It was “not part of the original plan, and the tree warden says it’s a perfectly healthy tree. Removing this as an afterthought sends a message that we’re not serious about saving trees. It sequesters carbon and is a native tree, so it helps the environment,” said Vatz.

Precinct 8 meeting member Patricia Worden said, “Trees stop climate change, and shade trees provide natural outdoor air-conditioning. We have several hundred low-income senior residents within walking distance of the park. The trees belong to all of us, including the elderly and children.”

Lynette Culverhouse read a leader from a disabled resident on behalf of low-income disabled residents. “There are alternative suggestions to ensure ADA compliance while keeping those trees.” 

Precinct 9 meeting member Beth Melofchik said, “After the hottest summer on record, it’s incumbent upon us to consider this precedent-setting decision. This is a beautiful park for the shade it provides. All dead or unhealthy trees have already been taken out. Please do not further diminish the tree canopy.” 

Elizabeth Dray said, “I would like Arlington to choose tree canopies over circular paths. It’s a wonderful, family gathering place and every tree counts in reducing carbon.” 

Tree Warden Tim Lecuivre was not present.

Local landscape architect favors proposal

However, landscape architect and former Select Board member Clarissa Rowe favors the plan.

“This is a wonderful plan. I like shade, and a lot of shade trees are still there. This precedent-setting decision will transform Whittemore Park, and make it a wonderful place and a destination. To say that every project that comes to town cannot touch a tree would be a mistake. Let’s be practical. It’s a good idea to be plant many small trees because they grow faster than large trees. Little trees do well in a public situation, and the DPW does a fine job of watering new trees.” 

Select Board members offer opinions

Members of the Select Board expressed their views.

Dan Dunn said that in the past, “Arlington previously never discussed tree removal; they just removed them. There was a time when we removed more trees than we put in, but now that’s reversed, with more trees going in than being taken out.

“We’ve also instituted a host of processes involved in tree removal. We now have a full-time tree warden, so trees are more likely to be preserved. We haven’t taken down that many trees in the past few years, but have saved many trees now that we have a discussion process.

“But not every tree can be saved. Many can be taken down and replaced. I’m glad the Planning Department looked at this and discussed the removal and replacement of trees. I love the tree canopy, and we’ll still have one. I believe that this park will be better once this plan is done. Change is scary and hard, but look at what we’re getting.”

Joseph Curro Jr. said, “I went to the park yesterday to look at the trees. We need this project to revitalize the park. Most of the Norway maples’ branches are lopped off and provide shade to the sidewalk, not the park.” 

John Hurd said, “I went to the park today and looked at the trees. One Norway maples looks like half a tree, bending out over Mass Ave. The branches go over into lanes of traffic and look potentially hazardous. Leaning away from park, the tree doesn’t add much aesthetically or shade to the park. I love this plan.”

Steve DeCourcey said, “Town Meeting overwhelmingly supports this plan. The issue is the yellowwood tree. No one wants to cut down a healthy tree, but trade-offs have to be made.”

Board chair Diane Mahon said, “I wrestled with my decision regarding the yellowwood tree, but am guided by the professionals.”

The plan for Whittemore Park has been in the works since 2018. Read the details here and the links below >> 

May 10, 2019: Session 6: Top capital projects, CPA efforts advance

June 22, 2018: Final recommendations for Whittemore Park released

This news summary, by YourArlington freelance writer Susan Gilbert, was published Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020, and upsdated Feb. 28, to add links just above.