Downtown Residents Sign Petition to Save the "Phoenix Ficus"

Note: as of this afternoon, the City of Phoenix has agreed to spare the Phoenix Ficus and provided a great allegory of downtown Phoenicians fighting for a tree's existence.

Just south of McKinley Street on the west side of First Street in downtown Phoenix, a lush ficus tree provides an arboreal canopy that's perfect for escaping the summer sun's brutality.

Come fall, the City of Phoenix will likely have it removed.

The ficus, now being referred to as the Phoenix Ficus, has been on the street for decades according to residents. But it's also the way of the city's current street beautification project (namely, plans for other trees), and because city officials are concerned that the tree is leaching water from its own underground piping, it has to go. 

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"Our suspicion is that [the tree] is compromising the infrastructure -- either the storm drain that it's currently over, or an adjacent water main," says Tony Humphrey, a civil engineer with the city of Phoenix currently working on the First Street project.

Last week, the city started its First Street Improvement Project, a downtown streetscape renovation that'll add 25,000-square feet of new sidewalk, 72 trees, and more than 700 shrubs between Fillmore and McKinley streets in an effort to enhance the Downtown pedestrian experience.

"We're re-configuring the roadway, making it narrower for more pedestrian friendly improvements such as a wider sidewalk, additional landscaping, angle parking, new street lighting ..." says Humphrey.

They're also planning to remove the ficus tree and replace it with "at least a dozen more trees just within the vicinity of that area," Humphrey says.

But a few Downtown residents don't think it's much of a fair trade. 

Community activist, Bob Diehl started an online petition for the Phoenix Ficus, citing in his proposal that the ficus provides more shade than any number of desert trees could. 

His efforts are joined by those of Sean Sweat, who's calling the First Street Improvement Project a million-dollar public relations move.

Sweat's no stranger to city politics and projects; last year he petitioned for a Downtown dog park in an effort to make Phoenix a more walk-able environment. Ultimately, the city created a parking lot.


Sweat's an engineer by profession, and says he'd like to find ways to change "poorly designed auto-centric areas" (which he says are are both environmentally and economically unsustainable), into walkable places where people can stay healthy.

"Part of what frustrates me with the city is that they seem to think a tree is a tree when it comes to shade," says Sweat. "If there's a trunk here, it's providing complete shade for whatever the canopy diameter is. That's not the case ... Having a half dozen little desert trees versus one serious sunlight blocking, SPF 90 tree doesn't work out."

Sweat points out that a ficus is a type of fig tree, and fig trees need very little water.

"If it's tapping into the storm drain, it's not going to give it any water -- not any more that it's getting in a monsoon," he says. 

As for tapping into a water main, "Someone out there should be complaining about really low water pressure. I don't hear anyone screaming, 'hey, I can't shower in the morning 'cause the water's trickling.'"

Humphrey hopes the community can compromise: "Right now, staff is exploring other possibilities as to try and maybe box [the ficus tree] and transport it to another location, says Humphrey. We're working with our parks department staff to try and find a new home for it."

Read more about the city's project on the City of Phoenix website and keep up with the ficus discussion on the online petition, which, at the publish time of this post, has 113 signatures. 

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