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Alleging ‘environmental racism,’ residents protest plan to remove scores of mature trees in Roxbury

Yvonne Lalyre has affixed ribbons around the lindens, red oaks, and other trees along Melnea Cass Boulevard.
Yvonne Lalyre has affixed ribbons around the lindens, red oaks, and other trees along Melnea Cass Boulevard.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

In a vast expanse of asphalt, it’s a rare stretch of urban greenery.

The rows of oaks, lindens, maples, and other trees that line Melnea Cass Boulevard in Roxbury have for decades provided vital shade, fresh air, and a leafy balance to a city corridor that can feel like a furnace in summer and a windswept tarmac in winter.

Now, in a move that some residents denounce as a form of environmental racism, city officials are planning a new road project that would cut down about a quarter of those mature trees — among the largest tree removals in recent city history.

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The construction, slated to begin this year, could eventually endanger all 500 trees that line the boulevard, given the risk to the trees’ dense network of roots, advocates say.

“This is an assault on the environment — and our community,” said Cristle Rawlins, 59, an artist who has lived in the neighborhood for 30 years. “You have to wonder whether this would be as easy to do in a neighborhood that wasn’t predominantly people of color. I do think there’s environmental racism here.”

City officials began planning a wide range of changes to the often-congested boulevard nearly a decade ago, when they proposed adding more lanes to the existing four.

Facing stiff opposition to what residents viewed as plans to run a quasi-highway through their neighborhood, city planners scaled back the proposal substantially, hoping not to lose out on $25 million in federal grants for roadway improvements.

The final plan seeks to create a “more pedestrian-friendly” boulevard, one safer to cross and easier to navigate by bicycle, with slower traffic and more flood protections. Instead of additional space for vehicles, the plan is to add bike lanes on both sides of the boulevard.

“Ensuring all these priorities are met has been the focus of the work for the last several years of this project,” said Audrey Coulter, a spokeswoman for Mayor Martin J. Walsh.

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The removal of trees is necessary “to meet all priorities,” she said.

“The trees that are still slated to be removed are due to adjustments in the design of the road, principally to reduce crashes and flooding, and to improve the infrastructure for walking and biking,” Coulter said.

But environmental advocates say city officials have violated state law. In a letter this month to city officials, lawyers from the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston said the city failed to hold a public hearing about their plans. State law, they said, requires tree wardens to hold a hearing before removing any “public shade trees,” or nearly any tree on public property.

The attorneys also argued that city officials have failed to consider the climate impact of removing so many mature trees from the boulevard, which runs from Tremont Street to Massachusetts Avenue.

“Roxbury is an environmental justice community that is already facing disparate impacts from extreme heat,” they wrote. “Urban [tree] canopy is a critical tool for communities in combating the effects of extreme heat. The residents of Roxbury should, at the very least, have an opportunity to voice their concerns.”

More than 90 percent of Roxbury’s residents are people of color.

City officials declined to respond to the allegations, but in the past, they have told local residents that such public roadway projects are exempt from the law, which the attorneys disputed.

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Of the 124 trees the city plans to remove, 25 are considered dead, Coulter said. To make up for the removed trees, the city plans to replant another 205 along the boulevard, which was named after a civil rights activist known as the “first lady of Roxbury.”

The city has already planted, or plans to plant, another 140 trees in the surrounding area, she said.

But new trees take decades to provide the shade and climate benefits of mature trees. Most of the trees along the boulevard were planted in 1981, after a failed project to build an “inner belt” highway there that would have connected Roxbury with Brookline, Cambridge, and Somerville.

Given the steadily rising temperatures from global warming — last month was tied for the second hottest July on record, following July 2019, the hottest month on record — critics of the project said the city should revise the construction plan to preserve far more trees.

“This is an awful, awful plan,” said Michelle Wu, a city councilor who chairs the council’s planning, development, and transportation committee.

Wu, who recently released a “Green New Deal” plan for Boston, noted that neighborhoods such as Roxbury will probably bear the brunt of the warming. In 50 years, the city expects summer temperatures will exceed 90 degrees nearly every day, with higher temperatures in areas with more asphalt and fewer trees.

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She also noted that mature trees do far more than saplings to absorb storm-water runoff and reduce flooding during heavy storms, which are expected to increase with climate change.

“No amount of federal funding is worth exacerbating deep, structural injustices,” she said. “It’s short-sighted, foolish, and an egregious injustice to tell these communities that they have to wait decades for new trees to replace the existing canopy.”

In hopes of persuading the city to preserve the trees, Yvonne Lalyre spent recent weeks tying ribbons around the lindens, red oaks, and other trees that line the boulevard. She is also one of nearly 1,900 local residents who have signed an online petition, urging the city to hold a hearing before removing the trees.

The 70-year-old retired teacher has spent years fighting the project and now worries that contractors could break ground at any time in the coming months. City officials declined to say when the project will start.

“We live in times when we have to keep all the trees we have,” Lalyre said. “The trees are essential to us. It’s criminal to cut them down.”


David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.