City arborists had opposed Cafritz driveway that killed trees

Two trees were fatally damaged by the construction of a driveway at 5333 Connecticut Ave. NW. (Brian Kapur/The Current/July 2017)

Following the loss of two large street trees in Chevy Chase, a city arborist is placing the blame on inadequate maintenance and political pressure to allow an ecologically risky driveway.

The trees are located outside 5333 Connecticut Ave. NW, where Cafritz Enterprises completed a new apartment building last summer. Michael Chuko of the Urban Forestry Division — part of the D.C. Department of Transportation — said his agency unsuccessfully opposed the project’s circular driveway, which severed the trees’ roots.

At a community meeting this week, Chuko said his agency’s concerns were overruled by the D.C. Office of Planning and the office of then-Mayor Vincent Gray in 2014. Alternatives to the circular driveway — including a curbside drop-off and pickup on Connecticut, Military Road, Kanawha Street or a rear alley — were rejected by Cafritz’s traffic planner.

“We were basically told you have to accept this design plan,” Chuko said at the July 24 meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3/4G (Chevy Chase). “We had no choice, but we were opposed to the design from the beginning.”

Upon inspection last week, Chuko confirmed that one of the formerly healthy trees is visibly dead, while the other is fast declining, and he said he has advised Cafritz to remove both trees “sooner rather than later.”

As a condition for the driveway’s approval, Cafritz committed to an extensive maintenance plan for the trees. But according to Chuko, the company did not adhere to that commitment.

“There wasn’t a lot of follow-up care,” Chuko said.

Cafritz did not respond to repeated requests for comment. An arborist for Cafritz had been expected to speak at Monday’s meeting but did not attend.

ANC 3/4G had supported the public space application for the circular driveway in February 2014 contingent upon the comprehensive maintenance plan for the two trees.

Commission chair Randy Speck, who negotiated numerous conditions regarding the controversial Cafritz development, said he was unaware of concerns from the agency, then known as the Urban Forestry Administration. When the application came before the commission, it included a signature from the arborist — but omitted the forestry division’s grave concerns.

Chuko said the situation at 5333 Connecticut isn’t unique. “Any time a project requires roots of trees to be cut, the best course of action would be to pursue a redesign that would either eliminate or significantly mitigate the amount of root loss that would occur,” he said at Monday’s meeting. Chuko added, though, that in most cases developers with enough will can in fact keep these trees alive.

The Urban Forestry Division will replace the dead trees with new ones, but Chuko warned neighbors that the canopy there will never be the same.

“You can replant but you’re not going to get a tree that size again because the growing conditions that it experienced when it was young, 75 years ago, aren’t the same anymore,” he said. “Once they’re gone, they’re gone.”