A plan was announced late last month for one of downtown's most notable parks to get new trees, but then a tempest erupted over the best kind of tree to plant when Triangle Park's existing Bradford pears are taken out.
Bill Owen, president and CEO of Lexington Center Corp., which owns and operates the park, announced Oct. 28 that the 45 Bradford pears would need to be removed because of disease and age. Most of the trees are infected with fire blight, a rapidly growing bacterial disease.
Some of the Bradford pears in Triangle Park, at Main and Vine streets and Broadway, are original to when the park opened in 1982. Bradford pears have an average life span of 25 to 30 years.
Owen told the center's board that the pears would be replaced with willow oaks.
When Owen asked for approval to go forward with the project, Vice Mayor Jim Gray, who sits on the board and was elected mayor last week, protested, saying the panel needs "informed advice and counsel on this matter" before making any changes in the "iconic" park.
Gray made a motion that an "urban planner with landscape architectural skills review the current condition of the park and make recommendations for needed improvements, in consultation with the Triangle Park Foundation," which conceived the idea for the park, built it and has consistently paid its maintenance expenses.
The board approved Gray's motion.
Owen and the Triangle Foundation's president, Steve Grossman, say the decision to replace the Bradford pears with willow oaks came after three years of conversation between Owen and the Triangle Foundation.
Grossman said last week that the organization discussed various tree species with several landscape architects.
"This is strictly tree replacement," Grossman said, not a change that affects the Triangle Park design conceived by the renowned landscape architectural firm Zion and Breen of New Jersey.
The foundation has committed $50,000 to replace the pear trees with willow oaks, which are best planted in spring.
"What caught me by surprise was to hire a consulting firm to talk about changing the design of the park," Grossman said. "We would never stand for that."
Owen also said his discussion with the foundation was never about altering the design of the park, "but to replace the trees because they need to be replaced."
Coming down against willow oaks is Lexington consulting arborist Dave Leonard, who said the species does not grow well in disturbed soil, which the park has. Also, the tree has a "descending branch habit that puts branches right down in your face," he said, and it prefers acidic soil, not the alkaline soil prevalent in the Bluegrass.
He said tests should be done in the park to learn the soil's pH level, plus the soil depth and drainage pattern. "All those are of the utmost importance in deciding on a tree species," Leonard said.
Bradford pears are banned now in Lexington, said the city's urban forester, Tim Queary, who was not involved in any of the discussions. He said the city's list of acceptable street trees, adopted after Triangle Park was built, prohibits callery pears, a family that contains Bradford pears, from the public right of way. That's because as the trees grow older and larger, they are prone to wind and ice storm damage.
Queary and members of the city's Tree Board, which advises the city on tree issues, would like to see two or three tree species planted in the park, not just willow oaks. With a monoculture, in which only one species is used, if a disease like fire blight strikes one tree, all the trees would be wiped out, he said.
Morgan McIlwain, a principal in M2D Design, a Lexington landscape architecture and planning firm that advised the Triangle Foundation, said a variety of trees was discussed with members of the group's executive committee.
"We talked about trees with strong architectural character that do well in lawn conditions," he said.
Willow oaks are not unknown to Lexington, he said. They are planted at Lexington Theological Seminary on South Limestone and line the sidewalk leading to Kirwan Tower on the University of Kentucky campus.
"They have done well and are quite spectacular," McIlwain said. In the fall, the narrow leaves turn yellow or russet brown, depending on soil and moisture.
For Triangle Park, "we were trying to find a tree that grows not too quickly, but not too slowly," McIlwain said. Willow oaks live 80 to 90 years, he said.
Owen, the Lexington Center CEO, said he has contacted the Covington firm of Kinzelman Kline Gossman, which specializes in landscape architecture, planning and urban design and did Lexington's downtown streetscape plan. If the Lexington Center's board decides at its Nov. 18 meeting to engage in further study of the park, Kinzelman would be the logical choice, he said.