By Wilson Walker

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — Dozens of aging Ficus trees in San Francisco are posing a public safety risk, the city says. Residents are fighting to keep the streets green, but trying to keep the dying trees might actually prevent the city from getting new ones planted.

San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza is a place where any number of the challenges facing San Francisco are in near sight. One that may not jump out immediately, however, is the trouble in the trees.

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The Ficus trees in the city are not only old, they have been prone to failure since the most recent drought. Those trees are now of particular concern because in 2016, voters made the city responsible for the 125,000 trees that line city streets.

“They’re now responsible if those trees now fall and hurt someone,” said Dan Flanagan of the Prop E aftermath. Flanagan is the Executive Director of Friends of the Urban Forest, San Francisco’s partner in the tree business.

“There’s been an online petition with close to 5,000 signatures trying to save the Ficus,” says Michael Nulty, one of the petition supporters. Downtown, the Ficus trees circle the Main Library. In the Mission, it’s the Ficus trees that line 24th Street.

“You tell me, doesn’t the trees behind me make this place look a lot better,” asks Luis Gutierrez, owner of La Reyna Bakery. In both cases, the city says the trees are a safety hazard and require removal. This, happening in a city that could certainly use more trees.

“If you’re up in space and you look down at San Francisco, they use something called LIDAR,” explained Flanagan. LIDAR uses laser light to measure targets, useful for creating digital 3D representations of the target.

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According to Flanagan, LIDAR scans of San Francisco show about a 13.7% coverage with trees. “And that is really low,” he said.

“Ficus trees are great trees,” Flanagan said. “The problem is that they’re the wrong tree in the wrong place.”

So while the city has to cut back or cut down its liability, neighbors are still understandably upset to see trees go.

“Well the trees are our life,” Gutierrez says of 24th Street. “They’ve been here since we’ve been here.”

The result is, effectively, a standoff. Appeals and even litigation have delayed tree removal, in some cases, for years. For those who are advocating for the next generation of trees, it’s a frustrating, in-between spot that the city could be stuck in for some time.

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“That’s exactly the way I feel,” said Flanagan. “I think it’s sad that you have to replace these trees. But I want to see what it would look like some day. If you actually spend the time with the trees we could just start that process in 20 years or 10 years from now, the streets will look amazing.”