With the Tobin Bridge looming above and a vast expanse of asphalt below, the towering maples, elms, and hundreds of other decades-old shade trees supply fresh air and a hint of grace to a bleak stretch of urban decay in Charlestown.
But many of them may soon be cut down.
To make way for the long-delayed replacement of the Bunker Hill public housing complex — a crumbling, infested warren of brick buildings in dire need of renovation — the developer and city officials say they must remove about 250 mature trees, three-quarters of those growing on the 26-acre property.
It would be among the largest removal of trees in recent city history, double the number that the city last year planned to take down for a controversial road project along Melnea Cass Boulevard in Roxbury. The city withdrew the plan after protests.
Opponents say the loss of so many trees — some nearly a century old — would devastate the neighborhood’s thin canopy, harm air quality, and deepen health disparities faced by low-income residents.
For many residents who live in the Bunker Hill complex, one of the largest public housing projects in New England, the developer’s plans have stirred mixed emotions. Built in 1940, the three-story buildings are riddled with mold and asbestos and should have been razed and replaced years ago, tenants say. Losing the trees is a hard trade-off they wish could be avoided.
“They were here long before we got here,” said Betty Carrington, 62, a former president of the tenants association who is known as “Big Mama.” “Those trees are beautiful. They help us breathe. And they provide the shade we need during the summer, when the sun really beats down on us here.”
Proponents of the $1.4 billion development plan, which include city officials and current leaders of the tenants association, say it’s too late to make significant changes and that the complaints come mainly from people outside the housing complex who want to derail the project. They also note that the developer plans to replace the trees.
“I don’t think they have the true interests of the residents at heart,” said Tina Goodnow, vice president of the Charlestown Residents Alliance, which represents some 2,500 tenants who live in the complex’s 1,100 public housing units. “They just want to stop the deal from moving forward. We never heard these people say anything about these trees, until now.”
The real problem they should be concerned about, she and others said, are the rats and roaches, peeling plaster, sagging roofs, and drafty windows that leave units frigid in the winter and steamy in the summer, as well as the rusty fixtures in kitchens and bathrooms, and sinks that have stopped working.
The latest plan, which could start construction as soon as this summer and take a decade to complete, calls for the demolition of the existing 42 low-rise buildings and the construction of 15 taller buildings. By the end, there would be 2,699 units, including 1,010 public housing units and the rest at market rate.
City officials said they plan to make up for the lost 90 public housing units by building new public housing elsewhere in Charlestown. Given the grim condition of the buildings, they said the development must not be delayed or impeded because of the trees, noting that a sufficient number of market-rate units are needed to offset the costs of the affordable housing. Previous plans were revised to respond to neighbors’ complaints about the height of the buildings and the overall number of units.
“We cannot in good conscience justify putting the trees before the well-being of the residents at that site,” said Lydia Agro, chief of staff at the Boston Housing Authority, which will oversee the public housing units. “Their housing and health has to take priority over the trees.”
Advocates for preserving more trees acknowledge the need to replace the complex. But removing so many trees, which they say amounts to about 10 percent of the entire canopy in the densely populated neighborhood, raises questions about environmental justice, they said.
“These trees belong there, and we’re already living on a heat island. We shouldn’t be killing trees in this city,” said Johanna Hynes, a leading critic of the developer’s plan, who lives a few blocks up the hill from the housing complex.
She called it a “false choice” to say that the city had to choose between replacing the housing and keeping more of the trees.
“It’s not fair to be pitting us against the residents,” she said, accusing the developer of not addressing the need to preserve the older trees until she and others voiced their concerns.
The project managers for the developer, Leggat McCall Properties, last month said a survey had found that nearly a third of the 340 trees on the property were in poor condition.
Their latest plans will preserve just 89 trees, but the project managers have promised to plant at least 500 new trees, part of an effort to make the development “a model for environmental sustainability.”
The project will also substantially reduce the development’s overall emissions below what they are now, using special designs to be far more energy-efficient and rely on fewer fossil fuels, they said. Though the new development will have more than two times as many units, it should emit less than half as much carbon dioxide, they said.
“It’s the gold standard for how residential housing should be built to have a low-carbon future,” said Adelaide Grady, a senior vice president at Leggat McCall and director of the Bunker Hill project.
She said they will try to preserve more existing trees where possible, but she noted that the project has other goals, such as improved access and safety. The trees slated for removal, in some cases, stand in the footprint of the proposed construction, or they complicate the design in other ways.
“Understanding all the issues and challenges … there’s a false equivalence to say trees are as important as everything else,” Grady said. “We’re doing everything we can do, and well above and beyond what anyone else would do in this situation.”
David Meshoulam, executive director of Speak for the Trees in Boston, wasn’t satisfied with the developer’s explanation, and worries about the neighborhood’s air quality.
“There just is no replacing a 60-year-old tree with multiple smaller trees,” he said. “The math doesn’t work out. As we face hotter summers, where residents will be more at risk of heat strokes and asthma, this is a serious public health concern.”
City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who represents Charlestown, has called on the Boston Civic Design Commission to persuade the developer to preserve more trees.
“I strongly urge the BCDC to consider the invaluable benefits of maintaining the existing healthy trees on site, not only as a matter of good architectural design, but also as a matter of environmental justice,” she wrote last month in a letter to the commission.
Still, Edwards said she hopes the controversy won’t delay the project.
“We absolutely need to take climate change and the tree canopy seriously, but we need dignified, sanitary, and affordable housing,” she said.
For residents like Tammy Commesso, who has lived in the complex for 12 years, the new buildings can’t come soon enough. But the 41-year-old unemployed mother said she, too, worries about losing so many trees.
“We desperately need the new housing,” she said. “But we also want to be able to breathe.”