By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
Residents are banding together to protest Alexandria City Public Schools’ plans to cut down a 150-year-old oak tree at T.C. Williams High School.
The tree, located near the high school football field, is slated to be removed to make way for a new concession stand and bathrooms as part of the Parker-Gray Memorial Stadium modernization project.
ACPS declined to comment on when the tree will be removed. However, several residents who caught wind of the removal last week say it could happen at any time since it appears that ACPS is prepping the area for construction.
According to a July 13 update on the project on ACPS’ website: “Construction fencing along portions of the project perimeter is scheduled for installation starting July 15, 2020. This will be followed by the disconnection of utilities and the installation of a construction entrance. Erosion control measures are scheduled to be installed in late July, 2020, with demolition commencing the first week of August.”
An online petition created last week to “save the tree” collected 1,087 signatures as of Wednesday at 5 p.m.
“The tree is estimated to be around 150 years old, and in good health. It provides an invaluable source of shade and beauty on the school campus,” the petition reads. “… As climate change warms our planet, the last thing we need is to kill such a piece of nature and history – especially for such a non-critical purpose. It would be a [short-sighted], selfish and irreversible decision.”
Several residents have vowed to chain themselves to the tree if ACPS goes forward with its removal, according to the petition.
Julie Moult, an ACPS spokesperson, said that the division had tried to save the tree when designing the concession stand.
“Much consideration has been given to finding a way to save this tree which unfortunately is positioned in the middle of the site where the concession and restroom area will be,” Moult said in an email. “When planning, the goal was to locate this facility as far … from the neighborhood on Woods Avenue as possible so to minimize its impact on residents. Although we understand and agree that losing a mature tree is regrettable, 31 new trees and other landscaping will be planted.”
Former Mayor Allison Silberberg, who was known for advocating to protect and grow Alexandria’s tree canopy during her tenure as mayor, argued that planting new trees isn’t the same as protecting mature ones.
“The city can plant more trees, but it will take decades for that new tree to become anything near to what this tree is,” Silberberg said. “Some people have called this tree a ‘witness tree’ because it’s witnessed so much history.”
The stadium modernization project has been entangled in controversy because of that very history.
In the 1960s, the city used eminent domain to take the land of a predominantly Black neighborhood to build T.C. Williams High School. After paying the displaced residents nominal compensation for their homes, the city agreed to build them new homes on property adjacent to the school along Woods Avenue.
Allegedly, the city and school division also verbally agreed to never put stadium lighting up at the school, since it would diminish the Woods neighborhood’s property values. The city reaffirmed the promise in writing in the development special use permit for the school’s 2004 rebuild.
Nevertheless, city council approved the stadium modernization project, which includes stadium lighting, in October 2018. Several groups of neighbors subsequently filed lawsuits against the city and the school board, and one suit is scheduled to go to trial in October 2020. While some stadium construction has begun, ACPS has agreed to wait until after the lawsuit is decided to erect the lights, according to the plaintiffs’ lawyer.
Resident McArthur Myers is among those who have called the oak tree a “witness tree” because of the history associated with the T.C. Williams site. Even though the concession stand is located on the tree site to give space to the Woods neighborhood, Myers argued that cutting the tree down is a disservice to that neighborhood’s history.
“We are one city [with] many stories, and you have to respect and tell all of the stories: the good, the bad and the ugly,” Myers said. “This situation up here, this is one of our ugly stories. Taking the land with no reparation, no respect of the citizens as related to the promise made regarding the lights. … This tree is, for me, the connector to all of this. Part of this legacy up here.”
Myers suggested that in order to protect the tree, ACPS should incorporate the concession stand and restrooms into the stadium structure at the bottom of the stands. Silberberg advocated moving it to the other side of the field.
ACPS declined to answer questions about whether it is possible to build the concession stand somewhere else and whether the division is considering alternatives that don’t result in cutting down the tree.
Because ACPS has not shared a timeline for the tree’s removal, Silberberg, Myers and other tree advocates are watching the site closely to ensure construction doesn’t begin.
Resident Boyd Walker said he’s requested that the city designate the tree as historic, reconsider its removal because of the city’s climate goals and direct the city arborist to conduct a report on the tree. The city arborist declined the Times’ request to be interviewed.
Tree advocates plan to host a socially distanced rally in the T.C. Williams parking lot tonight at 7:30 p.m. to raise awareness, Myers said.
(Read more: The history beneath T.C. Williams)