With any luck the issue of adding trees to the Main Street corridor will be put to rest at tonight’s Town Board meeting, with the possibility of a another option being considered.
At the December Town Board meeting, a new plan was suggested – that of adding four trees to the 3rd to 4th street block and three to the 4th to 5th street block, rather than going with the two and two compromise agreed upon at the Land Use Committee meeting November 26.
“At the meeting I attended two trees on each block was decided. Then the meeting I missed [December Town Board] more were snuck in, so it feels really underhanded and it feels like the people who are directly affected are not being heard at all and our opinion is not valid,” said Sean Mularky of Bear Mountain Outfitters at the second Land Use meeting Jan. 9. “So, if you are going to do this … and my guess is you are going to do whatever the heck you want to do … please do it slowly.”
This was in response to the new suggestion that came out of the December Town Board meeting to add a few more trees so the arrangement wouldn’t look straggly.
“Business owners came to me and asked if we could put in a few more trees so it’s more aesthetically pleasing so that’s where the four and three idea came from. If we do this, I want it to look decent rather than plop, plop, plop through there,” said Commissioner Eric Pierson. “I want it to look nice from the get go. We will get an arborist to see exactly what we need to do, and we will put the right tree in the right way, and it will be the right height. And we aren’t going to put a tree in that’s in the pathway of vehicles.”
At last week’s Land Use meeting, the number of people in attendance were split concerning the trees. Some didn’t want any but were OK with the compromise of two and two per block from 3rd to 5th and others liked the idea of at least four on the 3rd to 4th street block and three on the 4th to 5th street block; some wanted more.
Commissioner Donnie Calloway, who has been against adding trees from the start came around at the first Land Use meeting and agreed to the two and two scenario.
“I thought we had a good compromise from the last meeting. Even those who were angry left OK with the compromise so I don’t understand why we can’t take this slowly. Do two and two, start with that. Why push to do all at once?” he asked.
Public Works Director Lamar Nix said he could cut into the new Main Street asphalt NC DOT will begin work on April I to add trees later, but Commissioner Pierson said coming in later to add trees wouldn’t look good.
“When you cut into asphalt and patch, the edges can’t be smoothed over. You can’t just trench over and cover and have the edges be smooth. Plus, adding trees later means they won’t be staggered or positioned correctly,” he said.
The idea is to stagger the trees down the block with two on the south side of two center parking spaces and two on the north edge of two center parking spaces for 3rd to 4th, with a similar scenario on the 4th to 5th block.
Commissioner John Dotson, also on the Land Use Committee with Commissioners Eric Pierson and Donnie Calloway, said he is for the four and three scenario and for planting them all at once.“Personally, I originally thought the two trees per block was acceptable, but I have come to embrace the additional tree option,” he said. “Logistically, doing it now rather than later is better, too. Put electricity in conduit under the pavement so we have a good clean product when DOT is done. Do it now and call that it. Let’s not consider going for more trees [more than four and three]. Let’s not fight this battle again.”
Jerry Moore of Kilwins who represented the Chamber of Commerce and other merchants echoed concerns heard from the start saying it’s not that more trees wouldn’t be pretty; the question is, are more trees practical? Will people hit the tree guards? How challenging will it be to back up?
“When I look down Main Street and look at the trees in the planters, the branches come out a good six feet from their trunk. And if we are going to put these on the edge of the parking spot, the branches are going to come out. You got an 18-wheeler truck coming down Main Street and those branches will go out unless we trim them for many, many years. Also, we will have branches coming down in weather like we’ve had. I am concerned with the practicality. I don’t disagree … it’s pretty but is it practical? It’s not like we are a treeless town. I just think we have to be careful from the practical side of it.”
Commissioner Pierson and Commissioner Amy Patterson, who wants more like 11 trees and who spoke at length about the positive effect trees have subconsciously on visitors and potential customers, said urban trees have been cloned to address all the problems people worry about concerning trees in traffic areas.
“There are trees specifically grown for this reason. Laratic Oaks, they drop their leaves well – they don’t brown and stay on the tree, they shore up nicely to 12-14 feet, which is what we want. There is also a Sangria Oak that blooms out burgundy in the spring then greens up. They produce trees specifically for this and we will get as big as we can get,” she said. “Urban trees are cloned to have good shape, good color; to do all the nice things.”
She said she wants Highlands’ central business district to look good and doesn’t want to do anything to impede, impair or diminish the district and the retail options available there.
“If you are a retailer you have all thought about the atmosphere inside your facility. Once you get them in the door, what it looks like inside is an important part of the retail environment. What we are talking about here is the outside atmosphere that will enhance the street, so people say ‘Wow, this looks interesting; this looks nice; let’s stop and walk up and down the street.’”
She cited a handbook on research about retail consumer relationship development from 2014.
“Besides the environmental reasons to add trees – aesthetically, stormwater and pollution control, fixing CO2 levels and the letting off of oxygen, all the things that vegetation and trees do – it is also very beneficial to a central business district to have trees,” she said. “It creates this sense of place and an atmosphere that says, ‘Wow, this is pretty, high end.’ Well-tended beautiful trees will have more people wanting to come here. We are competing with online retail. We need to give them a shopping experience and the best way to do that is to give them an experience not just inside the store but outside the store.”
But Moore, Mularky and David Young all said Highlands already has trees.“We have trees,” said Mularky.
“We flipping have trees in our town. We have a lot of trees.”
“We have trees on Main Street already so we aren’t a treeless downtown business district. If you look at anything west of Asheville, Highlands blows everyone away as far as doing business, generating sales. People love to come to Highlands. If you look at the busiest times of year between May and October, you can’t find a parking space. We don’t have a weak downtown. Yes, we can always improve which is why we are looking at a couple of trees to break up that line of sight. But just be careful. If when people come, they can’t get in and out of parking spaces easily, if you make it more difficult, if you put more obstacles for them to maneuver around, that creates a negative experience.”
Retailer and landlord David Young said he didn’t believe trees would make business better.
“We have trees, we’ve added trashcans, we’ve added benches, we have done all we can to accommodate the consumer, but you keep on gilding the lily and you are going to make a mistake,” he said. “My opinion is we had a compromise before and now you are trying to slide more in there. I’m sitting here listening to someone who has no experience in everyday retail saying the more trees you have the better it’s going to get. No, it’s not.”
Amanda Sullivan, Marketing Director for OEI who sits on the Chamber board said the marketing aspect of trees is why she is involved.
“I am not a retailer, but I did research and what Amy presented is the same everywhere; no one is making this stuff up. In other towns, the merchants were also concerned when they first started doing this in the downtown areas – changing things up when what they have is working,” she said. “Yes, we have a nice downtown, but we are talking about shaping the future perception of our town to continue to create the high-end experience that people come here for. I think that’s important to everyone to maintain that perception. It’s about shaping so we continue to attract the type of people who will frequent the types of businesses and the lifestyle we have created up here all year. The tree scape information really speaks to that,” she said.
Moore said the discussion is about arriving at the magic number of trees and where trees should go to keep the functionality of Main Street.
“I completely agree with the aesthetics, and I am not disagreeing with the studies. But we know this town better than any researcher from Harvard, Yale or wherever they may be from. We have to figure out what works best in our town. Maybe it is four trees or three trees I don’t know. I just say proceed cautiously. We have an amazing booming town that’ s not easy to get to; people travel up a mountain road to get here. They do this already.”
In the end, Moore said taking into consideration all that was said, he would agree to expanding the number of trees to three between 3rd and 4th with spacing to add more later and three on 4th to 5th.
“If you can guarantee it won’t affect parking and not affect view from one side of the street to the other, I would agree, but I don’t see how it won’t do both,” said Mularky.
The commissioners present agreed to look into the cost of the project – estimated at $3,000 per tree which will include the tree, the planting of the tree, the grate and the guard – though Commissioner Patterson suggested permeable pavers around the base of the tree rather than the expensive metal grates proposed.
They will also consider the financial logistics of adding more trees after NCDOT is finished renovating the street.
- Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper