The look of El Camino Real through Burlingame stands to be transformed, as city officials reached a compromise with the state transportation agency to fix safety concerns along the main thoroughfare by removing landmark eucalyptus trees.
During a virtual meeting Wednesday, Jan. 6, hosted by the Citizens Environmental Council of Burlingame, city officials and residents discussed plans to cut many of the treasured trees lining El Camino Real.
Acknowledging the concession is a difficult one, officials celebrated Caltrans’ willingness to replant a new, full grove of trees along the street and also invest heavily in fixing the lingering sidewalk and drainage problems.
“We have to think about restoring the grove for future generations,” said Councilman Michael Brownrigg, who is a member of the task force discussing the future of El Camino Real, along with Councilwoman Emily Beach as well as community members and Caltrans officials.
Over the past two years, task force members have collaborated to find ways to fix the busted and interrupted sidewalks along El Camino Real as well as the reoccurring flooding issues common during the rainy season.
Officials said Caltrans has dedicated $100 million to the project which could begin as soon as fall 2023. But the state transportation agency which owns and operates El Camino Real was only willing to invest in the project if the existing trees can be removed.
Burlingame community members are historically protective of the eucalyptus grove which lines El Camino Real, and in the past have fought hard against proposals from Caltrans to cut the trees. Task force members recognized those sentiments, but also nodded to their obligation to protect the safety and infrastructure issues that exist in the area.
Though reticent to allow removal of the existing trees, Beach said Burlingame officials were partially satisfied by Caltrans commitment to replant dozens of new trees along El Camino Real — far more than the agency would commit to if traditional design standards were applied.
As it stands, there are about 85 trees along El Camino Real. Caltrans has expressed a willingness to replant 60 trees, though the standard approach would only require about 15, according to Brownrigg.
Recognizing that the transportation agency is willing to offer some concession, Brownrigg said officials reluctantly embraced terms of the proposal.
“That’s why the task force, with a heavy heart, believed this design compromise … will yield the same kind of tree-lined boulevard we are used to,” he said, noting some task force members cried when coming to terms with the tree removal.
El Camino Real is home to the Howard-Ralston Grove, which is a grove of eucalyptus listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Officials believe some of the eucalyptus along El Camino Real are as old as 100 years, though there is no accurate way to assess their age.
A key difficulty in the effort to preserve the trees while fixing the sidewalks and infrastructure is that eucalyptus trees grow in groups with shallow roots. Ultimately, engineers determined it is impossible to do the digging necessary to improve the street without threatening the health of several trees at once.
The shallow roots are also a terror on existing infrastructure, as the sidewalks along El Camino Real are frequently broken and moved by the trees. Officials are optimistic the new sidewalks will make the area much more pleasant for pedestrians.
“I think there will be a much safer sidewalk experience for everybody,” said Brownrigg.
There was limited feedback from community members during the meeting, however, some bike and bus advocates shared some reservations regarding the future composition of El Camino Real.
After the discussion, Burlingame resident Madeline Frechette expressed her displeasure with the nature of the discussion, which excluded what will happen between the curbs.
“The exclusion of themes like rapid transit or safe bike infrastructure is confusing,” she said in an email. “Certainly what happens to the tree line and sidewalks could have ramifications for the roadway, and we are at a point in history where we cannot afford to selectively prioritize concerns about greenery aesthetics.”
For her part, Frechette said she would like the existing lane composition of El Camino Real to remain with one lane dedicated for bikes and buses, plus additional safety measures addressing the needs of pedestrians.
Brownrigg recognized that some may be frustrated with the meeting format, but encouraged those parties to register their concerns with Caltrans, which is taking public comment on the future of the thoroughfare until midnight, Friday, Jan. 8.
“We did not focus on what happens between the curbs,” he said, regarding the work of the task force. “The question was whether we could reach an agreement to repair El Camino Real at all? So to all the disappointed bike and bus advocates — don’t be disappointed, go weigh in with Caltrans.”
Register interested in offering feedback to Caltrans regarding El Camino Real should visit ecralternatives.com for more information.