Last night, just as the crew at Village Pizzeria, 131 N. Larchmont Blvd., was cleaning up for closing, the floor started rising up in the back of the kitchen, the result of a sewage backup. Owner Steve Cohen told the Buzz this morning that he was up all night dealing with plumbing problems, which may have been caused by ficus tree roots continuing their “assault on local businesses.”
Cohen also sent a message of frustration to Larchmont Business Improvement District President Tom Kneafsey, who has long advocated a program to remove the ficus trees and replace them with a less invasive species. (The ficuses were planted in the 1960s, all over the city, because they’re a hardy fast-growing street tree that could withstand tough urban conditions. They are so large now, however, that it would take years for any new trees to replicate the feeling and shade provided by the trees, though no one disputes the obvious damage they have done to the sidewalk and the insidious destruction of the pipes both below and above ground.)
But the plan to remove the trees has met resistance from concerned neighbors, like Windsor Square Homeowners Association President Larry Guzin, who strongly opposes removing the old trees that shade the street. Fearing the loss of the character of the street, his association urged CD4 Councilmember David Ryu not to grant any permits to remove the trees until a consensus is reached on how to move forward.
“This is exactly why we have a strategic plan in place to very slowly repair and replace the trees and sidewalks over the next decade,” said Heather Boylston, spokesperson for the Larchmont BID. “Safety is the biggest issue with regard to the aggressive roots, but the collateral cost to merchants and property owners cannot be ignored because it’s so significant. We plan to implement phase one (removal of three trees) of the plan in the fall.”
Without notice to anyone, the City removed a tree near Goorin Brothers Hat shop at 141 N. Larchmont in April, because it had been determined to be diseased. But a new tree has not been installed and no one seems to have any information about why or when a replacement tree will be planted…so it’s not surprising that people are concerned about removing other trees.
In the meantime, business owners like Steve Cohen are left to wrestle with the invading roots.
According to Mark at Lipson Plumbing, whose company has been on the street for decades and serves a number of businesses on Larchmont, the ficus tree roots are definitely the source of the problem business owners are facing with their sewer pipes. Lipson recommends quarterly maintenance to clean out any roots, but also notes that commercial establishments are unfortunately much more susceptible to back-ups because of their heavy plumbing usage…and it’s hard to control what customers put down toilets. Lipson staff were on their way over to Village Pizzeria when we caught up with them.
Hopefully, Village Pizzeria will be open this afternoon.
“We are trying really hard to get everything cleaned up in time to open,” said Cohen.
Update on August 17: Fortunately, Larchmont Village Pizzeria was able to re-open on Wednesday afternoon. However, later in the day on Wednesday, we spoke with Bob Vacca, owner of Lipson Plumbing, who’s been servicing the Larchmont neighborhood for decades. Bob said it turned out that tree roots weren’t the culprit at Village Pizzeria yesterday. Instead, it was kitchen grease. But Vacca did say that roots have caused back-ups in the past…just not yesterday’s.
Today, we spoke with a senior official at the LA City Department of Forestry who sympathized with those who want to keep the trees and those dealing with the damage from invasive roots. According this official, Ficus trees are notorious for their invasive roots, but seeking water is what tree roots are designed to do, as well as anchor the tree firmly into the ground. There are trees that are less invasive than Ficuses, but they won’t have as large a canopy as the Ficus. This is because the canopy spread above the ground generally matches the root structure under the ground…so it’s a trade-off. If you want large shady trees, you need a tree that has a spreading root system.
And there’s another trade-off too. If we want to reduce the disruption that tree roots cause to the sidewalk, and also give the trees a better chance to survive, experts recommend creating larger wells for their roots, which means giving up some of the sidewalk. You can see where the City has done that in some places on Larchmont, and it seems to be working.
This story was updated on August 17.