About those Officer's Square elm trees
"Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'till it's gone" Joni Mitchell
The thing I remember most about Grade 6 is the crush I had on Vicki Tracy. But I also remember some of the New Brunswick geography we took. I remember learning about Saint John and how it had an oil refinery and a sugar refinery, and that it was called the Port City because ships could come and go.
And I learned about Fredericton, and how it had the legislature because it was the capital and it also had the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. But what I remember most is a photo of Fredericton from our textbook. It was a photo looking down a residential street, and it was almost magical the way the elm trees on either side formed this huge canopy. It was like looking into a tunnel. I learned that because of its trees Fredericton was known as the City of Stately Elms.
It would be years later that I would move to Fredericton to work at what was then CFNB Radio. Driving up to begin that job was actually the first time I was ever to visit the city, and part of the reason I was excited to come, is because that textbook photo from grade 6 never left me, and I wanted to see the trees.
I wasn’t disappointed, and pretty quickly grew to appreciate what those trees mean to the city, how they are an integral part of the city’s vibe, and character. I spent many an afternoon and evening in a lawn chair in Officers' Square over the years, just soaking up the ambiance of the live music, and looking around, including at those giant elms that were lending shade, and thinking what a perfect setting this is; what a great city.
So it is no surprise to me that so many people are up in arms about the decision to eliminate these trees in favour of a climate controlled skating oval and the building of a splash-pad that will apparently be somehow consistent with the historic character of the square. I guess it will be based on splash pad designs from the 1800’s.
So now, as you might expect, it is on. Social media has swung into overdrive with petitions and comments, people are wrapping the trees with blankets, the letters to the editor of the Gleaner are flowing, posters are springing up, an archeologist is lamenting what he sees as the potential loss of historically relevant artifacts buried under the square and he says the city can’t legally do what is planned. Meantime, the city and province are apparently of differing opinions on whether the city is allowed to cut down the trees, and a citizen-organized picnic in the park is planned for this weekend.
City council meantime, having decided not to entertain any discussion on the matter at this week’s council meeting, either because of, or in spite of a gallery full of people who like the trees, is now in full-fledged damage control. As of this writing the latest word from Mayor O’Brien is that the chainsaws have been ordered to stand down, while they go back to the consultant to ask if plans can be changed so some of the trees can be spared.
That’s a smart move by the mayor, but the key question remains of how city hall could be so tone deaf as to not understand how cutting down these majestic trees wouldn’t rub a lot of people the wrong way. And especially not laying out this little detail about the Officers' Square renovation, until the last minute.
The timing is curious. Mayor Mike says councilors only found out a couple of weeks ago that the trees were on the chopping block, so to speak. But as well, he says staff warned council in November, that there might be some “pain points” in the project. You think that when staff tells you that, that your immediate response might be something like “Hold on. What do you mean pain points? What are we talking about here?” But apparently not, if they didn’t find out about the trees until two weeks ago. Curiosity I guess is not a predominant trait on council.
For many, the outrage, concern, disappointment, whatever it is, goes beyond the trees, to the whole project, many because they fear the historic nature of the square will be lost – that what they know and love will be gone.
Against this recently ignited opposition, is the city council pointing out that this project has been in the planning stages for years, including lots of opportunities for public input. I guess, but leaving out that tidbit about the trees makes that whole argument moot. It’s like a politician promising big tax breaks but failing to point out until it is a done deal that it means we have to close the local hospital to have that nice tax reduction.
Now we are hearing that the city getting the developers to make changes will cost money. Yes, it will, but that should be on the city, not on those who are putting up a fuss. Whether it was tone deafness of assuming cutting the trees wouldn't matter, or being asleep at the switch and not realizing this was in the plan, that's the cost of failing at due diligence. Right from the get-go the agreement should have been to do this thing without messing more than necessary with the trees, and if it means a smaller project or whatever, well, it's about priorities. Would most citizens prefer no skating oval if it meant we get to keep the trees? I don't know, and I don't recall being asked, that's the point. Nor, from what I gather, was it presented that way at the consultation sessions.
To what extent this is a done deal is to be determined. To spend $9 Million of taxpayer's money on something that is not wanted by even a sizable minority of Frederictonians seems unwise. It is good they are going back to the drawing board, but if it is a fait accompli and this is just an exercise to buy some time, that would be unfortunate.
If nothing else, this fiasco has caught the public’s attention. Which means the stage is set to find a consensus. The city may have thought it was doing that before, but communications only works when what is communicated is heard and understood. One gets the impression whatever happened in the past on this project, fell somewhat short of that. That's not a knock on the communications effort, just a reality that communications isn't always as easy as some may think.
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