Palm trees, a Miami emblem, lose ground


Published: Sunday, January 22, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 22, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
MIAMI - A renaissance is under way on Biscayne Boulevard, the central artery of downtown Miami, where derelict motels and strip malls are being tenderly restored and scruffy neighborhoods are striving for cachet.
But a defining element is about to vanish: the royal palm trees that have lined the street for decades, making clear that this is not Hartford or Detroit, but the otherworldly subtropics.
Along several miles of the street, the tall, trim royals are being replaced with bushier live oaks, which planners say will provide much-needed shade and beautify the heavily traveled street. Some residents say the palm trees are not only ugly but also dangerous, threatening passing cars when they shed their cumbersome fronds.
"These are trees that look like telephone poles when they grow up," said Robert Flanders, whose civic group, the Upper Eastside Miami Council, supports the removal.
Fighting words, one might think, for Miami, where the royal palm is emblazoned on the city seal, and palm trees, as common here as the sun, figure into virtually every advertisement for the place. Yet, Biscayne Boulevard is not the only spot where palms are losing favor. Miami and the surrounding county are rethinking their landscape philosophy and embracing thick-trunked, leafy shade trees over the iconic palm.
Planners say the region's tree canopy is woefully deficient, and that planting more shade-providing species will make Miami prettier, cleaner and more pedestrian-friendly. A study in 1996 found that only about 10 percent of Miami-Dade County was covered by tree canopy - and that was before a disease known as citrus canker and last year's hurricanes wiped out hundreds of thousands of shade trees.
Most palm trees withstood the high winds of Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma, making their dwindling popularity all the more puzzling.
Some private landowners, like Skip Stoltz, a developer in Palm Beach County, are planting only palms after losing dozens of hardwood trees in the storms. "The shade trees are much less expensive, but it doesn't matter," said Stoltz, who said he would spend up to $100,000 replacing toppled trees with palms. "It's a very good investment. The idea is you don't want to have a huge cleanup bill every time there are 100 mile-per-hour winds."
Miami and Miami-Dade County officials said they were not moving forward haphazardly, but cataloging which shade trees survived the storms and which succumbed. The Ficus benjamina, a stately but shallow-rooted weakling, proved especially vulnerable, along with the laurel oak, the black olive and the mahogany.
"Let's not have them put more Ficus benjamina out there so we can go through this same thing again," said Alyce Robertson, director of the county's new community image office.
Mayor Manny Diaz of Miami has started a "canopy campaign" to plant shade trees in places that are barren or too heavy on palms. Miami-Dade County, meanwhile, is planning a "tree summit" to decide which species to invest heavily in. The idea is not to overshadow the palm population but to create more harmony between palms and other trees, Robertson said.
"If you come here as a tourist in January you certainly want to see palm trees," she said. "But in July in South Florida, you don't want to stand under a palm tree. Let's have a balance here, folks."
Even the palm-obsessed - and they are legion here - agree that Miami needs more thoughtful landscape planning. From its founding in 1896, the city's look has been characterized by what goes up fastest and makes the most money. Developers felled countless shade trees as Miami became a resort town and planted inexpensive types of palms - which could be plunked full grown in front of hotels and condominiums and screamed "paradise" - willy-nilly.
"They want trees that are cheap, easy to carry around and grow fast," said Steve Stern, who owns a nursery called Exotic Palms in Homestead. "Other trees do not provide immediate gratification."
No matter that the palms' coconuts become missiles during hurricanes and their fronds plummet to the ground when passersby least expect it.
Stern is among many for whom Miami's palm trees are a source of intense civic pride, a unique asset it can flaunt to the rest of the country. Los Angeles has palms, but its most common type, the Washingtonia robusta, are spindlier than Miami's. John Updike once described the palms there as "isolate, like psychopaths." The palms in Las Vegas are imported, as are the rows of date palms along the Embarcadero in San Francisco.
The royal palms of Biscayne Boulevard came under threat at least once before, in 2003, when the parking authority in Miami wanted to uproot about 40 of them to make room for an auto race. The plan was ultimately scrapped because of protests. But even earlier, in 2001, the county drew up a "street tree master plan" that advocated planting fewer palms.
"While palms are aesthetically pleasing and look 'tropical,"' the plan states, "they do not provide the same environmental benefits, walkable streets, or lower ambient temperatures as hardwood shade trees."
Robertson, the community image director, said that technically, palms were not even trees. "They are a monocot as opposed to a dicot," she wrote in an e-mail message, referring to the fact that the trunks of palms do not thicken with age and their vascular systems are different than those of, say, maple trees. An ideal balance might be planting shade trees along sidewalks and palm trees as "accents," she said, perhaps in medians.
That is in the plan for Biscayne Boulevard, which is getting a new median as part of the beautification project. Flanders, of the Upper Eastside Miami Council, said any new palms would not require as much water as the royals, natives of the Everglades that he said were too thirsty for the space.
But Elvis Cruz, a community activist who opposes the removal of the royal palms, said planting shade trees along the boulevard would hurt businesses by making them less visible. He also said it was a "falsehood" that palm trees did not provide shade.
"I've stood in the shade of many a palm tree in my lifetime," said Cruz, who later sent more statements by e-mail in defense of royal palms along Biscayne Boulevard. (Among them: "If a tourist were to come here and see a Biscayne Boulevard of oak trees, she might say, 'Why did I come here? I could have stayed in New Jersey."')
The royal palms, about 80 strong, will be sent not to the mulch pile but to Watson Island, a desolate strip between downtown Miami and South Beach. The island is being redeveloped with luxury hotels, a spa and a mega-yacht marina - a combination that might seem incomplete without rows of swaying palms.

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