Altoona’s tree plans uprooting

Any community contemplating planting of trees as part of a neighborhood revitalization or beautification project needs to consider Altoona’s experience before embarking on its own effort.

Altoona’s failure to seek or obtain proper advice 30 years ago when Bradford pears were planted in the Little Italy neighborhood has resulted in sidewalk damage that could have been avoided if the city had done enough homework before allowing the planting to proceed.

Beyond that, the city was remiss in not addressing the issue long before now when it became clear that the trees’ roots were adversely affecting sidewalks.

The roots have lifted sidewalk slabs as high as six inches. That has made the sidewalks difficult, if not impossible, for wheelchairs to negotiate and, because sidewalks are property owners’ responsibility, the owners face potential liability issues.

Even someone not handicapped can be injured as a result of the situation that exists.

Meanwhile, Lee Slusser, city planning director, admits that the trees are the wrong trees for an urban street. It’s puzzling why in 1983, the year the trees were planted, someone didn’t realize or question that.

Altoona wasn’t experiencing “dark ages” back then; the city already was well along in terms of widespread revitalization, and capable individuals were overseeing what was happening.

But it’s clear now that even they were exposed to bad information or advice, and that they didn’t do enough verification of the information they were presented in regard to the long-term implications of what they intended to do.

The trees’ white flowers in the spring add an impressive touch to the city, but the damage on the ground evident at all times except when covered by snow destroys the overall positive impact the city was trying to achieve three decades ago.

In the winter, when the snow is covering the roots, the sidewalks’ dangers are exacerbated.

City Council merits praise for its positive attitude at last week’s meeting, at which a couple of Little Italy residents complained about the city’s threats of fines if residents didn’t fix the damaged sidewalks.

The council quickly sided with the residents, and interim City Manager Omar Strohm said the codes department had stopped sending out notices of violations connected to the sidewalk issue.

He said the department had not filed any citations connected to the problem.

Despite the city’s fiscal problems, solutions to the tree problem must be identified and pursued, even if it means some work reassignments within the city’s public works efforts. But first the city needs professional advice about the best options available – both for now and the long term.

Other communities should pay attention. As Altoona can now attest, a decision rooted in beauty can eventually turn ugly.