Update on Traffic Circle Clear Cutting: A Brief Reprieve, Continued Uncertainty

Steven Finacom
Wednesday August 01, 2018 - 11:21:00 PM

Last week, as earlier reported, the City of Berkeley abruptly announced new “policies” for traffic circles in Berkeley, including a City takeover of all maintenance from volunteers and cutting of all trees in the circles.

The announcement came in the form of a brief and bland directive from the Assistant Director of Public Works that was emailed to some people but didn’t directly go to many of the people who have been maintaining the traffic circles for years or decades. (In my neighborhood I checked with five people who maintain different circles. None of them received the email from the City, and neither did the longtime neighborhood association.)

On Tuesday July 31 many people, including children, came to the City Council meeting on short notice to protest. The Council and City staff, earlier deluged with calls and emails objecting to the new directive, drew back a little bit, promising that there would be consultation with neighborhoods before cutting. 

Why did the City abruptly implement its new circle policies? It appears to be in response to a lawsuit about an accident more that two years ago at one intersection where a circle is located. (The official City statement issued on Tuesday says “due to some recent legal challenges, the City is working to ensure visibility at all traffic circles.”) 

The City has made no further detailed reference to this in public but Councilmember Lori Droste, in an email to a Berkeley resident that has now been further circulated, said “Unfortunately, we (the Council) had a closed session on this particular issue last week. We have been advised by our legal counsel that if any injuries occur at traffic circles, the City is liable.” 

Amazingly, during the past two years no one in the City staff leadership seems to have thought to broadly consult with the volunteers maintaining the circles or the surrounding neighborhoods about any safety or visibility concerns and possible solutions. 

At the July 31 Council meeting Mayor Jesse Arreguin asked the Council to let community members speak for ten minutes about the circles. There were many supporters in the audience who had shown up for this issue.  

Several individuals spoke, starting with Robin Grossinger, a respected environmental scientist who is part of a group of neighbors who maintain a circle at Russell and Fulton.  

Grossinger pointed out, among other things, that other cities including San Francisco encourage the planting of trees in traffic circles and that the clear-cutting policy of Berkeley runs contrary to environmental practice and climate action efforts and the City’s adopted ordinance preventing the removal of live oak trees. A single live oak of modest size can remove 400 or more pounds of carbon from the atmosphere each year. 

Others noted that the Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Commission hasn’t been consulted, even though it’s usually in the loop on street tree and landscaping policy, and the new policy of banning volunteers goes against the City’s long time policy of encouraging volunteers to work in parks and other spaces. It’s not clear, either, than anyone talked to the Transportation Commission which advises on street and traffic safety issues. 

What are the next steps? 

The City has simply asked that anyone involved in volunteer maintenance of the traffic circles email the Assistant Director of Public Works and that “each circle will be assessed on a case by case basis”. The Mayor also publicly promised last night that there would be a meeting with City staff and circle volunteers before any further action.  

In the meantime, however, City staff have been going around the City lowering the signs in traffic circles. Some trees have also been marked with the symbol that the City uses to designate street trees that are going to be cut down. And City staff have not said what criteria they will use to assess whether a tree should stay or go. 

City staff may have publicly backed off clear-cutting the circles at Tuesday’s Council meeting but that does not mean that the same result—cutting of all the trees—won’t happen on a “case by case basis” as the City statement says. 

And a truly big bureaucratic problems with the City’s current stance is that staff have promulgated an “approved list” of plants for circles. The list has only six plants on it, all of them apparently taken directly from a CalTrans list used for freeway plantings.  

There are other “policies” such as this bizarre statement: “Water may be delivered or supplied by hoses run from private properties. Any hoses may not cross traffic lanes…” Since the circles are completely surrounded by traffic lanes, that seems to say yes you can water with hoses, but if you do you are in violation of city policies. Huh? 

What can you do? 

At least one Facebook page has been set up by concerned neighbors. You can go there to see any updates and also “like” support for the Circles. Look for “Save Fulton Street’s Oak Tree”. Those neighbors have also wrapped their tree with banners and posted informational signage. 

If you are involved with a particular traffic circle—there are supposedly 60 in the City—please email pwworks@cityofberkeley.info and state clearly that you want to be on the City’s contact list for all meetings and other information about the traffic circles. Do that ASAP. Send a copy to the Mayor and his community assistant. jarreguin@cityofberkeley.info, and jmccormack@cityofberkeley.info 

Please also send me your name and email address and the circle you’re connected to / interested in, so a list of community volunteers can ultimately be put together, connected to each other. You can email me at berkeley1860@gmail.com 

Tell your Councilmember firmly and directly in person or by email that you want to see neighbors fully consulted before anything is done to the traffic circles in their neighborhoods and you oppose banning neighborhood volunteers from maintaining the circles.