Trees vs. Signs: Part II

John Marr -- October 23rd, 2007

Remember the trees on Court Square that were causing all of the discussion about two weeks ago? The Harrisonburg City Council is going to decide what to do with them tonight. While this decision seems like a relatively small choice to make, it will likely have long lasting effects on the Harrisonburg Community. However you feel about this topic, tonight is your chance to attend the City Council meeting (7pm) and air your opinion.

Some things I’ve been thinking about:

If the trees are removed at the request of local businesses, will it open the door for other businesses to request the same treatment?

Should the responsibility to provide visible signage belong to Harrisonburg, the businesses, or some combination of both?

If the trees are not removed will these businesses lose customers? Are these businesses losing customers now because of the trees?

If the trees are removed, what will they be replaced with? Will these replacement plants set the tone for the rest of the downtown area?

There are several studies that have found trees actually increase foot traffic, and business in shopping environments. Wouldn’t removing trees and replacing them with smaller plants mean that Harrisonburg will never have a chance to see those benefits?

As a community should we value local businesses higher than our local environment?

30 Responses to “Trees vs. Signs: Part II”

  1. Tim says:

    I have worked at Cally’s (Calhoun’s) for six years and my opinion will be considered bias no matter what I say. With that in mind I would like to point out that, although Cally’s is one of the businesses that is requesting to have the trees cut down that it is not the main beneficiarie. Cally’s is an established business with more than ten years under it’s belt, people know where Cally’s is located.

    Downtown Wine and Gourmet and the Court Square Theater don’t, at this moment, have the same stability that Cally’s has gained. However, both of those businesses are what most people who support a rejuvenated downtown respect (my assumptions… locally owned, unique, and community minded.)

    John, you are my friend, as are most of the people against cutting down the 2 trees in front of the building, but I can’t agree on this issue. I never go to the mall area, if those businesses didn’t have visible signs when I was driving by I wouldn’t have any idea what was there. Downtown is the underdog, we are trying to steal back a community identity, to do that, our locally owned and operated businesses need to be able to catch the eye of the random person who drives through downtown as frequently as I drive through the mall area (not often).

    In this case, nobody is trying to pave paradise, we’re all working towards the goal of a thriving downtown. I feel that we could make more of a difference if we shifted our ire towards the mall/preston lake (right name?) region where Corporate USA is really making it’s mark.

  2. linz says:

    I hear what you’re saying, Tim, and thanks for sharing. I am all about supporting local businesses. However, I just can’t shake the idea that there must be another option to create sufficient signage without removing the trees. If only our community and the businesses in that building could “think outside the box” that is the two storefront areas blocked by the trees. If anyone wants me to poorly sketch some of my ideas on a napkin for them, let me know.

    Does anyone have a report of how the meeting went? I wish I could have attended.

  3. andy says:

    I wash and reuse ziplock bags, recycle everything, volunteer at National Parks — all traits that would suggest I would be a member of the group against cutting down the trees. But I agree with Tim. The trees should go.

    Urban trees have an average lifespan of only 30 years. So these trees are not long for this world anyhow. Plus, these trees were planted to decorate the downtown. They are not naturally growing “innocent” trees, they are landscaping intended to complement the urban scene. Buildings get torn down, remodled; trees get planted and cut. That’s how urban spaces evolve and thrive.

    Finally, I have seen the streetscape design that is planned for downtown. One of the most dominant visual elements in this plan is the addition of hundreds of trees — hundreds! So to the folks complaining that paradise is being paved by evil capitalists — the net gain of trees in the downtown over time far exceeds the loss of a few now.

  4. Emmy says:

    I haven’t kept up with this discussion as well as I should have, but can someone tell me what was in the building when the trees were planted?

    I had lunch at Cally’s yesterday and every time I go to that building I always think how pretty it is with these trees. Until this discussion began I never gave a thought to the harm they could be causing because I know what’s in that building. I must say that right now I’m on the side of leaving them.

  5. TM says:

    I think Mayor Eagle’s issue with the trees, and what got this whole thing rolling is the fact that the Court Square Theater marquee that was paid for with city money is blocked by the trees. Downtown Wine and Cally-houn’s would certainly benefit from the clear signage, but Court Square Theater is city-supported. Of course, city money put up the trees too…

  6. John Marr says:

    Thanks for all of the comments, and open discussion about these trees.


    Thanks for posting. As you mentioned we are friends, and I hold your opinion very high.

    I am all for downtown revitalization, and I would like nothing more than to see our downtown businesses thrive. I want to make it very clear that I frequent each of the businesses in question, and look forward to doing so for many years to come. I don’t want to hurt these businesses in anyway, but I feel there has to be a better solution to this problem.

    I personally do not see how removing these trees is going to make or break any of the effected businesses. On the contrary I feel it is in their best interest as well as the community’s to leave them and develop alternate signage. Studies have proven that people prefer to frequent areas & businesses with tall shady tree canopies. If we work as a community to develop a tall tree canopy we will ultimately reap the rewards.

    I stole the following links from Thanh’s post on the other “tree” thread (thanks Thanh.):

    – Trees: A Prospectus, A Solid Green Investment –
    – Trees in Business Districts: Comparing Values of Consumers and Business –
    – Business Districts, Streetscapes, Trees and Consumer Response –
    – The Value of the Urban Forest –

    If we cultivate a tall tree canopy shoppers will feel welcome and comfortable during their stay downtown, they will be likely to return again, and they will tell their friends about their positive experiences. Removing these trees and replacing them with smaller shrubs or shorter trees eliminates any possibility for this canopy. It also sets an example for any other businesses whom would like their trees removed. Tim, you know that I personally favor the downtown area to the mall area. I feel that having these trees is a part of what sets our downtown apart from the mall, and other “Corporate USA” shopping areas. It would be a horrible shame to lose what sets our downtown apart from other shopping areas in an effort to revitalize business. It just seems like removing these trees is a long term/permanent solution to a relatively short term problem (Harrisonburg has been around for well over 200 years now).

    Tim, I’m sure I’ll be in shortly to help “revitalize” the Cally’s business – see you then.


    I’m not so much worried about “paradise being paved”, what I am more concerned about is what kind of message removing these trees sends to other businesses. It is my understanding that very little regarding the Streetscape project is set in stone, and it can still change. What happens when other downtown businesses begin asking to have their trees removed, or not to have trees planted in front of their businesses? You’re right, any artistic renderings I have seen of the streetscape project have had loads of trees, but may of the trees depicted were already full grown. Trees don’t grow overnight, and planting them downtown ensures that there will inevitably be some temporary signage issues for businesses while the trees grow. If we start removing trees now, I fear we will have to remove them later/alter the Streestscape plans. With all of the studies available regarding the benefits of trees in an urban environment, I think it would be a huge mistake not to have as many as we can in our downtown. Removing these two trees at the request of businesses leads Harrisonburg towards a very slippery slope.

    These particular trees are very well suited to an urban environment, and will continue to grow and thrive for many years to come. It’s why the Zelcovas were chosen to be planted in this area. If you would like to learn more about these trees follow this link

    Arthur Bartenstein, landscape architect with Frazier Associates stated “Given the relatively generous root space and favorable drainage pattern from the trees’ standpoint and in consideration of the Zelkova’s proven durability in an urban environment, I think that they should continue to grow nicely, in time clearing more of the building and its entrance. Zelkovas are considered to have a moderate to fast growth rate. I do believe that we (Frazier) would not only strive but also go out of our way to work them into future streetscape plans.”


    Charlie Chenault reported that the “committee” made up of Harrisonburg City reps, and reps from the local businesses was working towards a solution to this problem. They had contacted Frazier Associates, , to help with information about this particular trees, and to make suggestions about signage. Frazier came back with a plan for alternative signage, but the committee needed more time to work out the details and produce/implement the signs. With that in mind Mr. Chenault asked the Council to allow the issue to be “tabled” until their December meeting. Chenault feels that December will allow enough time to get this project off the ground. He also mentioned that all of the leaves are beginning to fall off of the trees in question, and the current signs should be more visible over the winter while they are working on the new signage. Mayor Eagle was clearly against this idea, however Council members Frank and Byrd agreed with Chenault and the issue was put to aside until December.

    Again, thank you to everybody who is willing to discuss this topic, and share their opinions. Sorry about the length of this response, hopefully everyone made it through.

  7. andy says:


    I didn’t mean to imply with my “pave paradise” comment that I believed your concerns to be idealistic (really I just wanted to quote Joni Mitchell). But I do understand your concerns about setting dangerous precedent.

    And you’re right, the street scape plan is more conceptual now than reality.

    But the fact that the street scape’s conceptual basis (lot’s of trees) derives from the very well-researched and documented fact that humans want trees softening their urban space ought to be very encouraging to you and folks concerned about the Calley trees. The street scape plan is part of Harrisonburg’s organized effort to revitalize downtown — which is about bringing more humans to this urban space.

    So while it could be perceived that allowing one business to have trees cut will lead to others to follow suit, the reality is that all involved in downtown’s renaissance effort know fully well that attracting humans downtown requires an abundance of the softening and live-giving presence of trees. Many of us stand in the way of that slippery slope.

    Full disclosure – I am on the board of Downtown Renaissance and know personally the business owners inside the building. And I love trees. And downtown. And Calley’s beer.

  8. John says:

    This has probably been mentioned, but the trees were there when the wine shop signed their lease. They knew full well what they were getting into.

    I’m not sure how long the theater has been there, but it is surely more of a ‘destination’ location than a retail establishment or a restaurant (in other words, more people are likely to drop by a wine shop and buy a bottle after seeing a sign advertising it outside — not so with a theater — patrons generally are intentionally going there for a movie — making signage slightly less important).

    In my mind, this has become more a matter of principle than being about those particular trees. Now that HDR finally has things going in the right direction, and there is actually an excitement about the progress downtown (business and otherwise), this just seems to be a step in the wrong direction. It rubs me the wrong way.

  9. Emmy says:

    I’m about of the same mind John. I feel like the wine shop knew it and Cally’s just got a new sign (which is very easy to see in my opinion) and so they could have explored other options at that time.

  10. Tina says:

    Since I work for Court Square Theater, I hesitate getting into this, but would like to make a couple of comments.

    The trees were planted by David Turner, the former owner of the building. The land that they’re planted on is County property, although I believe they have given permission to the City to make this decision. City Council, without the report from the tree committee, voted to move the trees. (If there wasn’t a miscommunication, the two trees in question would probably have been gone before anyone questions came up.) The two trees have been deemed “healthy”, but will very likely continue to obscure the current signage.

    It is not uncommon for someone to walk into the theater, frustrated that they couldn’t find it. And it would be beneficial for us to be able to advertise not only that we exist, but what is playing that day/weekend. CST is looking into some alternate signs, no matter what the outcome of this debate. Signs are very expensive, though, and there are City ordinances to work within. CST is lucky, though, that eventually there will be wayfinding signs from the interstate to help direct folks to the area.

    There is also the possibility that with Streetscape, the existing trees may be removed/replaced. Maybe not. I just hope that people realize that this is not as simple as “trees vs. signs”, that you’re a “tree person” or you’re not. It’s a very complex issue, and decisions that are made – no matter which way it goes – will have long-lasting effects for the downtown community.

  11. Emmy says:

    I thought these trees were planted because they would eventually grow past the signs, is that not the case?

  12. David Miller says:


    We can appreciate your viewpoint. I’m confident that everyone participating in this conversation understands that this is all, quite the balancing act between business interests and citizen interests. Finding the balance is crucial.

    Also I believe that John and Emmy make valid points about sign creation vs tree creation. Which came first?

  13. charles chenault says:

    To be clear Tina and all, the miscommunication referred to(incorrect telephone phone number of tree mover) would have made no difference. I had requested that the decision be made to withhold action before the tree mover could have acted. Additionally, several of us on council believe and acknowledge we made a mistake by not allowing the tree committee to finish their work.
    Thanks – Charlie

  14. TM says:

    I thought of a great title for the next post on this topic (in December?)
    Trees vs. Signs III: Beyond Lumberdome!

  15. Tina says:

    Sorry, Charlie… in my attempt to clear up some misconceptions I managed to create one of my own!

    By the way, City Council (through their representative at our meetings, Charlie Chenault) has done a great job of trying to help develop alternatives and to encourage us (businesses affected by the obscured signage) to think outside of the box.

  16. Tina says:

    David (and everyone),
    I’m not sure which happened first: the trees being planted or the CST marquee being installed. As I understand it, the idea of having that particular type of tree was that it would grow up above the signs in about ten years. However, the trees have “leafed out” before getting above the building and pruning is not recommended.

    As far as the other signs, I *believe* Cally’s moved theirs when they had the name change. I cannot speak for Downtown Wine.

  17. andy says:


    You write in your last comment,

    “In my mind, this has become more a matter of principle than being about those particular trees”

    If that’s truly the case, then wouldn’t the net gain of trees downtown according to the street scape plan be acceptable?

    If it’s not about these particular trees as you state and about the principle of “trees downtown,” then would not the ultimate intent of the downtown revitalization — which the city council fully supports — be enough to reassure you that the slippery slope you fear will be avoided?

  18. John Marr says:

    I really appreciate everyone discussing this issue. This type of discussion is almost exactly what I was trying to facilitate by making the original post. I think people from both sides of this argument can, and should, learn from each other.

    That said, I don’t have a lot of time to post a new comment, but I have heard from a few people that the multiple “Johns” posting on this thread may be confusing. I will continue to post only as John Marr (in previous posts I was going by John M), any other Johns are not me.

    Again – I am looking forward to continuing this conversation, and hope that we can keep it going. I’ll probably post something more relevant tomorrow morning.

  19. Jay says:

    I think, as one of the business owners in the building, it is important to note that frazier architects have been given the directive to come up with two ideas for the building, one leaving the trees and one replacing them. I think that the business owners still feel that the best solution to beautify the building is to replace the trees with something that fits the building better. Because of that we requested for two ideas for the building. I do not feel this was well represented at the city council meeting Tuesday, but has been a major discussion at the committee meetings.

    Personally, I have mixed feelings on this issue because of the precedent that this would set. I think that when landscaping mistakes are made, they should be fixed. These trees only have a small possibility of growing to the level that they were intended to grow to (i.e. above the building to create a canopy). I think the city should fix the mistake. I am not sure that the city should set a precedent of assisting businesses to find alternatives to landscaping mistakes.

  20. charles chenault says:

    Why should the city fix the developer’s so called mistake? I am also assuming that the trees were there before the signs. You will probably say yes, but they were much shorter and were not expected to hide future signage, but therein lies the falacy of all of these types of arguments. I believe in getting the best result for all and not worrying about who shot John. Having said that, the city is stepping up to try to help fix the landscape/sign mistake (take your choice – it really does not matter). Either methodology, i.e., move signs or cut trees, sets a precedent if you buy into the precedent argument. If precedent is all holy, then I for one prefer the precedent that is environmentally sustainable, apparently favored by the community and helps the business owner participate in this and retain viable signage.

  21. Tim says:

    John Marr, all else aside it will be great to see you in Cally’s or anywhere else for that matter. This is definitely not an issue that should be divisive in the long term considering that we all have what’s best for downtown in mind. Slight variations on what exactly is best is unavoidable from time to time, the important thing is that people care.

  22. finnegan says:

    The trees stay.

    They’ll be “limbed up,” but ultimately, they’re not going to be removed from Court Square. Even if council wanted to, they can’t overrule the tree committee.

    It’s my understanding that facade enhancement money may still available for businesses to create “alternate signage.”

  23. TM says:

    As long as people might be looking at this thread again and it’s sort of on topic, anyone know what’s going on on Callhouny’s roof today? A big crane had the road that goes under the tower blocked off when I went by around 11 this morning.

  24. David Troyer says:

    I’m not sure what the crane was specifically for, but they are currently in the process of remodeling the space above us (Downtown Wine & Gourmet).

  25. JGFitzgerald says:

    In order to pay off some of the debts associated with the Simms renovation (Boys and Girls Club, etc.), the Housing Authority, which also owns the theatre, is selling the tower on Graham Street to a firm that is building a reproduction of a 13th century Czech castle in central Pennsylvania as part of a downtown renovation project near Amish country. Some kind of Disneyland-type thing. The crane was presumably taking the tower apart as part of that project. I understand they’ve been numbering the brick for several weeks.

  26. finnegan says:

    Not what I heard. The buzz is that they’re renovating the tower over Graham Street into high-tech city school offices.

  27. TM says:

    Huh, it definitely looked like they were doing something on Cally’s roof rather than to the tower.
    But, I heard they are adding 9 more levels to the tower for student housing with ground floor retail.

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