When residents in the Wenham Street neighborhood of Jamaica Plain heard of a coming development, they were initially excited: The proposed condominium complex would offer more housing than the original single-family home on its lot and, in their understanding, it would coexist with a Scarlet oak tree that rose at least 80 feet in the backyard.
Area residents believed the high-density development, down the street from the Forest Hills T stop, would be built around the local landmark, which neighbors, including a landscape architect, estimate to be about 150 years old. At first, it seemed too good to be true. Now, they fear it might have been.
In late August, Wenham Street resident Ken Pope, whose backyard overlooks the massive tree on Hyde Park Avenue, heard chainsaws behind his house. Pope went out to find a construction crew ready to chop down the tree that the developer, Vladimir Sirotin of MIR Realty, had allegedly pledged to protect, Pope said.
Pope spoke to the construction crew, who later left without finishing the job, but in the following days, chaos ensued: Sirotin said he had never committed to keeping the tree, and a neighborhood fight began.
“Developers can say whatever they want,” Pope said, “but you don’t know what they’re going to do.”
Now, the fight to save the tree has reached the Boston Planning and Development Agency, which stepped in to pause its removal, saying that was not a part of the plan the agency had approved in August 2022. The BPDA is now asking for an updated plan from Sirotin, who says unforeseen issues around storm drainage and accessibility require the tree be cut down. Caught blindsided are dozens of neighbors who feel slighted, saying they were promised that the beloved tree’s removal was out of the question.
Caterina Scaramelli, who lives in the Wenham Street area, said she and her neighbors had hoped to reach a compromise with Sirotin when they found out he was planning to cut down the tree.
“We were excited about having a project that coexisted with the tree,” Scaramelli said. “We were concerned about the canopy, but loved the building.”
But Sirotin told the Globe that the tree had to be cut down to make room for a drainage system. He said there were “no viable alternatives.”
“What no one foresaw at the time was the necessity for a stormwater management system, which, unfortunately, could only be accommodated precisely where the tree stands,” Sirotin said in a written statement to the Globe. “As soon as we received the engineering plans and realized this predicament, we diligently explored alternative options for the system’s placement to save the tree.”
Scaramelli disagrees, and believes the developer was not interested in alternatives. She was part of a Zoom call last Friday in which neighbors and city officials met with Sirotin to discuss the development. Sirotin said on the call that he had not committed to keeping the tree. Instead, he and his lawyer seemed more focused on planting new trees than maintaining existing ones, according to Scaramelli.
“It didn’t address how much the community valued that particular tree and how much we believed in the promise that the tree and the house would coexist,” Scaramelli said.
Several neighbors who were on the call also told the Globe that Sirotin declined potential tax incentives and city funding floated by local officials on the call. When asked about possible reparations, Sirotin committed to “potentially” replanting and caring for new trees, Scaramelli said. She noted that she feels skeptical about a seedling’s ability to grow between the home and retaining wall.
According to Scaramelli, Sirotin declined the neighborhood’s offer to explore alternatives to chopping down the tree in the week after the Zoom meeting. Local City Councilor Kendra Lara did not respond to the Globe’s request for comment on Friday.
Faith Girdler, who lives down the street from Pope, said the tree protects homes from water damage and soil erosion, and blocks noise and air pollution from the MBTA station and four-lane road nearby. Some neighbors also said the tree provides much-needed shade and cooling amid scorching summers in an ever-warming city. To lose it, Girdler said, would be to lose its myriad services as well as its century-long legacy.
“Once you cut down this tree, then what?” Girdler said. “Without this tree, we’re all going to lose.”
Girdler, Pope, and dozens of other Jamaica Plain community members are part of an initiative spearheaded by Scaramelli and Jamaica Plain resident Matt Shuman to stop Sirotin from chopping down the tree. Shuman said the tree is not only a part of the area, but a symbol of what the neighborhood offers to Boston.
“People move to [Jamaica Plain] for proximity to the outdoors,” Shuman said. “I get the feeling that people who want to buy a home here would probably want the tree.”
After Pope initially stopped the cutting of the tree in August, several neighbors contacted the Boston Planning and Development Agency to ask about Sirotin’s plans. When Shuman told the BPDA about Sirotin’s intention to cut down the tree, the agency told him that was not in the plan that the BPDA approved, Shuman told the Globe.
The BPDA asked Sirotin earlier this week to submit revised building plans and “consider obtaining the opinion of a certified arborist,” according to an email obtained by the Globe.
In response to the Globe’s questions, the BPDA’s assistant director of communications, Brittany Comak, shared an email the agency later sent to concerned community members late Friday afternoon. The email stated that it would consider the role of mature trees in “improving air quality, managing stormwater runoff and mitigating heat island effects.”
Since the BDPA’s request for resubmission, Shuman and Scaramelli started an email campaign among neighborhood members to express concern about the development to the BPDA. Concerned neighbors sent 183 emails by noon Friday — less than 48 hours after the campaign started.
In the meantime, the fight continues.
Scaramelli said whatever the BPDA decides could set a precedent for future developments. She said her 14-month-old baby comes to mind in times like these, when she is reminded that these trees don’t grow in one lifetime.
“I just think we owe it to our younger generations to build a city that’s climate resilient,” she said.