The Lost Oaks of California Ave

17 September 2009

A week ago, California Avenue in Palo Alto was one of the nicest places in Silicon Valley. Palo Alto is unusual in having two downtowns, because it's a merger of two towns, Palo Alto, whose downtown is University Ave, and the older town of Mayfield, whose downtown is California Ave.

What made California Ave unique were the beautiful old oaks that lined the streets. Until the city cut every one of them down earlier this week. I was there this afternoon, and everyone is talking about it. People are in shock.

I'm still trying to figure out what happened. From what I can tell so far, the city cut down the trees as part of a plan sponsored by an organization called CAADA (the California Avenue Area Development Association) for "improving" California Ave. Apparently some planner decided that maple trees would be nicer than oaks.

If they were going to replace the trees, why didn't they do it gradually? This is hard to believe, but according to this news article, they thought the street would look more "tidy" if all the trees were the same height:
Officials considered doing the replacement project in phases, but eventually decided to "bite the bullet and do it all at once," said Ronna Devincenzi, president of the California Avenue Area Development Association. She said that will allow the new trees to grow in at uniform height, giving the street a more tidy appearance.
Tidy. They cut down mature oaks in order to replace them with a bunch of maple saplings because that would look tidier?

CAADA says that the trees were cut down because 80% of them were diseased. I have trouble believing that. They didn't look diseased. When a bunch of trees in the way of a development project are suddenly found to be diseased, I look for alternative explanations.

We can't bring the trees back. The oaks of California Ave are gone, and it would take more than our lifetimes to grow them back. But we can find out how this disaster happened and try to prevent something similar from happening again.

If you'd like to know what happened to the oaks of California Ave, you can reach Ronna Devincenzi, the president of CAADA, at, and Palo Alto mayor Peter Drekmeier at

Update: 18 September

The mayor, city council, and city manager do not seem to have been consulted about the decision to cut down all the trees on California Avenue. Apparently that decision was made by someone else. It's still unclear who.

I'm now trying to piece together the chain of events that led to this terrible mistake. If anyone has any leads, please let me know at

Update: 27 September

We're getting closer to being able to figure out how this happened, though everyone involved is stonewalling. It now looks as if the plan to cut down all the trees was initiated either by the city project engineer, who was, according to this news story Woojae Kim, or by the CAADA board of directors.

The web page listing the CAADA board of directors was recently removed, but was still in the Google cache:

President: Ronna Devincenzi, Realtor Alhouse-King Realty
Vice President: Jim Stevens, Country Sun Natural Foods
Secretary: Terry Shuchat, Keeble and Shuchat
Treasurer: George Langford, Hewlett-Packard
Mark Luchesi, Mollie Stone's Market
Elizabeth Bishop, Bishop Corporation
Karl Broussard, Kinko's
Lynn Davidson, California Paint & Wallpaper
Gerald Brett, Language Pacifica
Warren Wong, Hotel California

I don't know for sure if these are the exact people who voted to cut down the trees; this list could be old; but I suspect these people would be good ones to start asking what happened.

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