This story has generated a lot of buzz and twitter. On Tuesday, Austin's Planning Commission denied a variance to remove a big tree on a downtown property at Bowie and W. 5th. The denial might -- and likely will -- obstruct the construction of a tall, dense residential or office tower on a piece of property that City Council just zoned for a tall, dense residential or office tower.
The backup packet for the PC agenda item (TP 10617196 Bowie Street (311, 313, 315)) is here (pdf).
I'll have more to say about this issue in later posts. But for now, I'd like to focus on just one question: What's The Tree worth? We put an implict value on a tree every time we insist the tree be preserved or allow it to be removed. Insisting that a tree be preserved means we deem the tree's benefit to the community outweighs the cost to the community of lost tax revenue and positive spillovers from the development. And vice versa.
It's not obvius how one should value a "protected" or "heritage" tree. I think the valuation is intrisically subjective, which is one of the problems with the heritage tree ordinance. But there's no way to avoid implicitly pricing the tree. The Planning Commission implicitly valued The Tree at more than $90,000 $70,000 because it rejected the developer's offer of $90,000 $70,000 for "mitigation costs."
I'd like to hear from readers what you think The Tree is worth. How much do you think the City should be willing to pay to buy The Tree outright? What is the maximum amount of tax revenue the City should forego to preserve The Tree? If the City were to sell the right to remove The Tree, what minimum price should it demand? The three questions should yield the same answer.
I'm not interested right now whether you think the project is feasible with The Tree in place, or your estimate of the lost tax revenues, or whether you think PC has the authority to consider a tree's benefits when weighing a variance, or whether you think PC's decision complied with the heritage tree ordinance criteria.
The Tree is a pecan tree. It is approximately 60 years old. It is 57' tall and has a roughly symmetrical canopy with a 55' diameter spread. It has a 32.0 inch diameter at breast height. The City arborist rated The Tree in "good" condition, and the developer did not dispute that The Tree is healthy and in good condition. It is set back 90' or so from Bowie Street and approximately the same distance from W. 5th St.
Here are some photos.
These photos were taken from the driveway entrance to the property. This is the only street-level vantage from which The Tree is visible from root to crown. I'm sure some residents of the Monarch high-rise just across Shoal Creek have a full view.
Here is aphoto of the property looking south from the other side of W. 5th. The small buildings lining W. 5th are not part of the property at issue and would not be torn down to build the project.
What say you?
NB. Because valuations like this are intricially intrinsically subjective and personal, there are no right or wrong answers.
Another NB. The Tree cannot be moved to another site because its roots are too deep, if that affects your valuation.