Simpson Park renovation plan approved. Del Ray residents pledge active resistance to save willow oak trees

Simpson Park renovation plan approved. Del Ray residents pledge active resistance to save willow oak trees
The large baseball field at Eugene Simpson Stadium Park. PHOTO/LOUISE KRAFFT

By Lexie Jordan |

Many Del Ray residents are enraged by City Council’s decision at Saturday’s public hearing to allow all necessary permits for the Eugene Simpson Park renovations, as that will include cutting down three historic and healthy willow oak trees.

The furor came after Council’s unanimous vote, and no residents came forward to argue for saving the trees at either the Planning Commission meeting on June 6 or at Saturday’s meeting.

Both the Planning Commission and City Council unanimously approved the renovation plan, which includes extensive overall changes to Simpson Park, with expanded parking, new bleachers, a new driveway, synthetic turf and new press boxes and dugouts.

The residents say they weren’t aware of the planned tree destruction before Council’s vote, and pledged to take extreme measures to prevent their removal.

“I am ready to chain myself to one of the three historic willow oak trees [the city] is cutting down,” Giselle McAuliffe said in a chain on the app Nextdoor.

The plan also includes an improved plaza area that will have a concession stand, picnic tables and new shaded seating. The basketball courts will move east of their cur- rent location and will have new lighting.

At the Public Hearing, City staff claimed that the plans will have an overall net positive effect on the environment.

“In the plaza, around the fields and in the northeast area of the park there will be 100 new Virginia native landscaping and trees will be planted removing the invasive species and trees’ poor health. This new development will increase the overall canopy coverage from 12% to 25%,” division chief and landscape architect Beth Znidersic said.

Hardscape trails will also be added as will an enhanced landscape buffer to screen Richmond Highway away from the residents.

However, in order to do these renovations, three healthy and historic willow oak trees that inhabit the park would be taken down.

“According to author and scientist Douglas Tallamy, native oaks support over 500 species of lepidoptera (butterflies and moths). These and other insects equal baby bird food,” another community member, Kim Frey, said in the chain.

Another poster noted the exaggerated environmental importance of old trees.

“Old growth trees cannot be replaced. It would take an- other 150 years for any new tree to offer the same eco- logical benefits,” Alexandria resident Dominique Marsalek wrote.

Mayor Justin Wilson responded to emails from the concerned residents, including forwarding a June 5 memo from Director of Planning & Zoning Karl Moritz that ad- dressed the issue of the willow oaks.

Planning Commissioner David Brown, during briefings on the Simpson Renovation plan, had also asked about whether two of the four willow oaks slated for removal could be saved and Moritz’ memo ad- dressed his concerns. Moritz said city staff reexamined the plans and found they could save one of the four trees, the one located north and east of big Simpson Field.

The group of advocates believe that showing active and public displays of resistance, such as chaining themselves to the trees, may be the only way they can save them.

“The city is showing that they do not care about climate change and the city’s warming by allowing the destruction of Old Growth Canopy trees,” Alexandria resident Karen Lemke wrote.