Some Sarasota residents say they are disappointed by the recent removal of numerous trees at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens’ campus in downtown Sarasota.
The change is part of a renovation project, approved by the Sarasota City Commission earlier this year, that is expected to cost $92 million.
The Selby Gardens Master Plan includes construction of a 450-space parking garage and a 110-seat restaurant at the corner of Mound Street and Orange Avenue, as well as a welcome center for the gardens.
In late August, Selby removed numerous trees on the eastern side of the property, which was used as a gravel parking lot. Some residents of nearby neighborhoods said they were saddened by the loss of the trees and that the project will change the character of the corner of Mound Street and Orange Avenue.
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A Selby spokesperson, though, told the Herald-Tribune that the trees were in poor condition and that the botanical garden will plant new trees as part of the renovation.
The situation underscores continuing friction between Selby and some of the surrounding neighbors, including many who opposed the gardens’ expansion plan. The plan was approved after undergoing modification during a sometimes acrimonious process.
The tree removal began on Aug. 24 and lasted for three days, according to Lynn Bates, Selby’s vice president for external relations. She said she did not have the exact number of trees removed from the area.
But according to the project’s Tree Mitigation Plan, Selby had planned to remove 52 trees, as well as 46 palms.The plan also indicates that Selby had intended to relocate some of the trees and palms and let many remain in place.
Bates said that since the trees that were removed were in an area that was used as a parking lot, many were in poor condition or would have not have survived relocation.
She noted that all trees that were removed will be replaced with mature specimens during Phase I of the project. The phase is expected to be completed in the summer of 2023.
She also said that no trees were cut down in the main gardens west of Palm Avenue, and no trees planted by Marie Selby or of other historical significance are being removed.
The spokesperson also noted that the Master Plan will create “one of the most environmentally friendly botanical gardens in the world.” The gardens’ current surface parking lots will be replaced with green facilities and an entrance area that features “lush landscapes and trees throughout the site,” Bates said.
“Certainly, no one ever wants to remove trees if there is another option,” she said in the email. “In this case, we needed to take this step to accommodate our growing visitor base and safeguard our collections for future generations, while being focused on replacing every tree as we create a campus that the city can be proud of.”
But some residents disapproved of the tree removal.
“It’s tragic,” said Susan Chapman, who lives near the botanical gardens, noting that Marie Selby “wanted a tranquil garden for the enjoyment of the public.”
Kelly Franklin, a resident of Laurel Park, said the idea that Selby cut down many trees was “shocking.”
“And that they would do this in order to make a parking garage and a restaurant was appalling,” she said.
Karen Hall, who lives near the gardens, was part of the group of people opposed to Selby’s master plan when it was being considered by the City Commission. She said she knew the day would come when the trees would be cut down.
“But when I passed through that intersection a few days ago, it was absolutely heartbreaking to see it come to fruition,” she said.
Selby Gardens did not have to apply for a tree removal permit from the city because institutional botanical gardens are exempt from the policy.
“It’s just ironic that a botanical garden was exempt from tree ordinances,” said Barbara May, the president of the Hudson Bayou Neighborhood Association. She noted that the opinions she shared with the Herald-Tribune are hers and are not necessarily the same as other Hudson Bayou residents.
May said some of the trees were live oaks. The corner of Mound Street and Orange Avenue, where some of the trees were removed, is the entrance to her neighborhood.
“It just changed the whole makeup of turning that corner and the entrance of our neighborhood,” she said.
But other residents who live near Selby support the project,. Ken Shelin, who lives across the street from Selby Gardens, noted that Selby is going replace all the large trees that were removed with specimen trees. But Selby first has to complete the construction project.
“During construction, you can’t build something if there’s a tree in the middle of the space you’re trying to build on,” Shelin said.