On April 26, an old and dearly loved friend living at 916 32nd Ave. S., in Seattle’s Leschi neighborhood was murdered. That morning, vandals with a chainsaw came to do arborcide by cutting down a mature western red cedar near the property’s northern edge. Tall with a spreading crown shaped like the ace of spades, it had graced the neighborhood for decades.
A photo taken by an alert neighbor shows three men standing beside the tree, a thick wedge cut from its trunk to guide the fall. One young man smirks as he waves a greeting.
With all our human tragedies, it may seem strange to ask sympathy for trees, but their role in sustaining life is crucial. Put simply, if there were fewer people and more trees, we would not be in the climatic fix we are. Trees and humans live and survive together, and in Seattle, every tree counts.
On the other hand, the city desperately needs affordable housing. Thousands of homeless people camp on Seattle’s streets, and the supply of new housing cannot keep up with the arrival of new residents. So the case of this cedar tree (and the right solution) is far from simple.
The cedar tree is not just another tree. It long stood on property that belonged to jazz pianist and singer Ruby Bishop who befriended performers such as Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong when they played Seattle clubs. She offered home-cooked meals at her modest brick home to touring black musicians weary of bigotry and bad food on America’s highways. Shaded by the cedar’s great limbs swooping over her deck, they could relax and enjoy a fine view of Lake Washington while eating Asian pears, apples, and other fruits plucked from her orchard.
Bishop performed at jazz venues in Seattle and at concerts throughout the world. In 2010 when Seattle entrepreneur Greg Lundgren was renovating Vito’s restaurant on First Hill, she asked to perform there and continued until shortly before her death at 99 on June 23, 2019.
A year before, the property had been purchased by Millad VII LLC, listed on its website as Millad Development, “A Boutique Design and Construction Enterprise on Mercer Island.” Farzad Ghazvinian of Mercer Island is listed as company co-founder, and Nasser Vaziri as its governor. Vaziri and his wife lived in the house for a year until their own was built nearby.
The process of demolishing a house and building new ones is a time-consuming, expensive process involving several city departments. In March 2019, Vasiri was fined $10,000 by the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection (SDCI) for cutting down two trees (not the cedar) without a permit in the area that was designated as environmentally critical. Presumably, neighbors had reported the cutting to the city.
In June an architectural design sent to the city for a house to be built on the north side of the lot showed the cedar located within the house walls. The scaled circumference of the tree’s crown was wider than the house. The city approved the plan.
In early April, 2021, the property was divided into two lots: a northern Parcel A at 916 and a southern Parcel B at 918. Ruby Bishop’s house and separate garage were to be demolished. The city approved the plan but stipulated that “Future construction will be subject to the provisions of SMC [Seattle Municipal Code] …which sets for tree planting and exceptional tree protection requirements on single family lots.” By this time, worried neighbors had apparently applied to have the cedar protected.
The neighborhood lies east of a scarp separating flatter upland from a great subsidence sloping toward Lake Washington at a considerable angle. The environmentally critical area the property occupies rests over an aquifer in a seismically active zone. The aquifer, called the Esperance Sand, is a periglacial deposit that acts as a huge sponge resting atop the impermeable Lawton Clay. That sponge insures that water lubricating the contact zone makes landslides inevitable.
North and south of Leschi great slides have and will spill into the lake, but the locality remained stable thanks to the original forest cover. Once this was cut for lumber, however, only remnant trees anchored the slope. Ruby Bishop’s cedar was a voracious drinker, but once cut down, its extensive root system can no longer quaff the brimming supply.
Neighbors succeeded in getting the tree declared exceptional by the city, but the developer was ready to build. Seattle Municipal Code Ch. 25.11 provides protection if a tree’s “unique historical, ecological or esthetic value constitutes an important community resource.” To qualify as “exceptional,” a Western red cedar must have a diameter of 30 inches when measured 4.5 feet above its base. At that height Ruby Bishop’s tree had a 37-inch diameter. Its beauty, root base and association with her certainly qualified it as an historic “community resource.”
According to the new owner Ghazvinian, while workers were demolishing the garage, “damage was done to the tree’s roots. On a map of Parcel A, the cedar is located about four feet east of the southeast corner of the garage. The garage foundation was a concrete pad, so the tree’s roots would have grown under the pad. Demolishing the pad, essentially lifting it up in parts, should not have seriously damaged the roots. What did, as shown in later photos, was a pit gouged several feet through the main roots at its base.
The city stepped in to protect the tree. Neighbors contacted the SDCI and its director, Victoria Simpson, had Inspector Stephen Rudolph direct Millad Development to place a construction fence around the tree to prevent further damage. A Stop Work Order issued by the Department posted on the property at 12:30 pm on Wednesday, April 21 stated that failure to stop the tree’s “removal, mutilation [and] destruction” would be punished by “… fine and imprisonment.”
Five days later a chainsaw’s snarl attracted a crowd of protesting neighbors, among them Jane Cunningham who, shouting and crying, photographed the cutting. The tree’s trunk, several feet in diameter, was worth a pretty penny. Everything but the stump was quickly hauled away.
The cutting photo, taken at 9:23 am, shows no fence around the tree–seemingly it had been removed to allow the cutters to do their work. But another photo taken of the stump shortly afterwards shows an orange plastic protective fence piled against it with an attached copy of the warning notice attached, dangling upside down as if in display of indifference.
News and photos flashed around the internet. On May 21, Millad Development received a notice of violation from the SDCI, fining it $90,482 for cutting the tree in violation of the warning.
Trees enjoy a variety of protections in Seattle. Besides “exceptional” status, a tree may also be nominated for “heritage” status after examination by an arborist and review by a committee. Time may have been a factor in the neighbor’s choice of protections. Heritage trees also require the approval of the property owner, and Millad had already planned to remove it as a potential hazard after the damage done to its roots. However, because the cedar was in an environmentally critical zone, the SDCI requires that a similar tree be planted in its place. This would require a change in Millad’s house plans and add to the building cost.
Threats of fines or punishment appear to be of little concern to many developers, and on June 24 seven Leschi neighbors posted an essay, Leschi’s Vanishing Trees. that documented the cutting as part of a long-standing threat to their community. It pointed out that unlike other cities, Seattle’s Municipal Code has no linkage between tree ordinance violations and issuance of a Master Use Permit (MUP) for building. Leschi horticulturist Jayn Foy wrote on the internet site NextDoor, that “Developers regard the fine as the cost of doing business in Seattle and factor the fine into the selling price. In the end it will be the homeowners, residents, and all of us who will pay for the environmental infrastructure problems such reckless construction causes.”
When I asked about this, Ghazvinian said that the City of Seattle had approved demolition of Bishop’s house and the company’s plans for construction of two houses on the properties.
On its website, Millad Development bills itself as a boutique developer, claiming their objective is not “…to eke out the last penny of profit. They want to build something that lasts, that people can appreciate.” One might have said the same about the cedar.
In late June, concerned Leschi residents wrote to Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, Mayor Durkan, and City Council members requesting an investigation of the developer, that criminal charges be brought against its officers, that the fine be increased, that the developer be denied a master use permit for a second residence, and that the property be developed as though the tree still lived. The residents’ group also requested that a new environmental study be carried out to determine the level of environmental damage caused by the loss of the tree and its root system. The “lasting something” Millad Development may leave in the neighborhood is an avalanche corridor.
A Queen Anne group protesting the cutting of another exceptional tree, a 50-foot, 44-inch diameter, 100 year-old Tulip tree, pointed out that developers are often guilty of “…declaring a tree ‘hazardous’ even though it poses no risk.” City codes, the Queen Anne group argued, give developers flexibility to remove exceptional trees if they stand in the way of maximizing a lot’s “development potential.”
Leschi resident Mary Carter-Creech writes, “The houses we see being built do not meet the City’s Comprehensive Plan to accommodate growth in support of affordability, equity, and environmental protection.” Long-time Leschi resident and Post Alley writer on architecture and urban planning, Clair Enlow, notes that there are design teams able to meld housing with the environment and preserve trees like the Leschi cedar. “Architecture IS the solution, one that covers the physical reality and construction cost problems—but unfortunately not the political and social ones.”
When I asked for a response to critics who argue that Millad Development builds homes too large for their lots, Ghazvinian said that his company followed city building regulations and also sought to increase available housing in Seattle by including Auxiliary Building Units (ABUs) on its sites so families could provide additional rental housing.
A story about one tree illustrates an increasing problem for a city trying to build more housing. The Leschi activists demand Seattle officials heighten environmental protections and penalties, and enforce the law. It would be too easy to brand such concerns as a NIMBY mentality. The legal protections Seattle affords its trees are minimal compared to other American cities. For instance, New York and Boston aggressively protect their urban forests. New York has 7 million trees, and it’s not clear to me that Seattle even knows how many it has.
One obvious need is for a thorough survey of potential exceptional trees and heritage candidates accompanied by efforts to gain them meaningful municipal protection. Further, the municipal building code should require making issuance of MUPs dependent on developers’ track records.
Mount Baker resident Kathleen Cain, another Post Alley writer, also wonders if there is an unhealthy connection between guardianship arrangements of elderly homeowners, as Ruby Bishop had in her late 90s, probate proceedings, and property developers. Meanwhile, city neighborhoods are losing their green beauty and the beautiful cooling trees provide.
Ruby Bishop was a cultural icon, a treasure from Seattle’s past. Entertaining generations with music and song, she sheltered generations of black musicians. On the deck of her Leschi home, they found comfort and caring beneath a beautiful, sheltering tree. They enjoyed a view of the lake and the verdant hills of Bellevue, once a farming community on the eastern shore. Much of this is gone, along with the mothering tree that should have been Bishop’s memorial.