Officers' Square project on hold as Fredericton looks for way to save trees
Fredericton Mayor Mike O'Brien says city staff will need 2 to 4 weeks to review options for Officers' Square
The $8.9-million development to upgrade Officers' Square is on hold for now while city officials work to find a way to save some of the park's 19 trees from destruction amid public outcry.
Mayor Mike O'Brien said in a statement on Wednesday that he has asked city staff to review plans for Officers' Square with an "eye to retaining as many of the large trees as possible."
He said he expects that city staff will need two to four weeks to complete the review.
"As mayor, I commit to bringing the results of this re-examination forward to council in an open public session before a decision is made on how to proceed with the project," O'Brien said in the statement.
Earlier in the day, Coun. Kate Rogers said council wasn't aware of the number of trees in Officers' Square that would be cut down as part of the planned revamp of the popular downtown space, and that staff were working to find ways to mitigate the losses.
"Council is hearing the public and staff is hearing and trying to be responsive," she said.
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The city announced its plans to cut down 19 trees in coming months at a council-in-committee meeting last week, starting with eight trees in the next few weeks.
This has caused outrage among residents who have expressed their concerns through protests, a petition with more than 600 signatures and wrapping blankets around the trees to prevent them from being cut.
Some have even said they're prepared to surround the trees and the equipment that will be used to cut them down.
"Had we known that those trees were going to be coming down, had we relayed that to the public, we could've had input then and could've factored that in at the time," said Rogers.
The removal coincides with a planned $8.9 million revitalization of Officers' Square over the next four years. Most of the trees that will be cut down are beside the wall along Officers' Square, and vary in age.
"We weren't aware of the detail of the loss of trees until the engineer drawings were done and by that time, the public consultations had ceased."
Rogers said the city did a lot of public consultation on the project's overall plan and factored in citizens' input.
A disconnect in planning
When plans were underway for the project, Rogers said there were notions that some trees were going to come down.
"Staff would allude to, 'There's going to be some trees [cut down] and there's going to be some people upset,' but we weren't aware of the magnitude of that at all."
She said the disconnect of communication between the city and the public came down to the timing of the project itself.
If this is something that's important to the residents of Fredericton, they need to be insistent.- Kate Rogers, city councillor
"After the engineered drawings were done ... the public engagement stopped," she said.
"To me, public engagement is an iterative process [and] as new information arises we need to then be bringing that back to the public and that's where that disconnect happened, we didn't bring that last step back to the public for discussion."
As a result, she said people at city hall are feeling "quite remorseful" about the removal of those 19 trees.
"There aren't people going around saying, 'Let's cut down those trees, it's going to make this project a lot easier,'" she said.
"As late as yesterday [Tuesday] they were having meetings about how to mitigate the tree removal while still construct the fence."
Rogers doesn't know whether the trees will be cut down, but said it's unlikely all 19 trees will be spared.
And if the project is delayed, there will be repercussions, such as fines to the city.
'Never too late'
Still, "it's never too late to stop a project," said Rogers, adding she's hopeful the public will continue pushing for what they believe in.
"If this is something that's important to the residents of Fredericton, they need to be insistent," she said.
"We are there to represent them and we have to be responsive to that voice."
A permit has been approved by the province, subject to final plans and specifications for the project.
Now, the city is working on the completion of these plans, but work can't start until those final plans have been approved by the province.
Public feels misled
The city councillor said council is aware the public is upset, one of the reasons being that they feel misled.
She said it wasn't the city's intention to mislead the public about the cutting down of the trees.
"There were renderings that were presented with the redesign of the park and in those renderings, there are very big trees," she said.
"I truly believe it wasn't intentional to be misleading, nevertheless it was and I can understand why it was."
A love for trees
Rogers said people in the area also love Officers' Square and the trees that fill that space.
"We talk about it on council like it's a centre for entertainment, a tourist attraction," she said.
"For people who already live in the downtown, it's their park."
In order to have that type of green space, she said a park needs large trees to provide shade.
"In this city, we love our trees," she said. "It's one of the reasons people are drawn to our city."
'Felt wrong to leave'
At Monday night's city council meeting, Rogers made a motion to add an item to the agenda that would delay work to the heritage site.
When council denied the motion to add an item to the agenda, a crowd of close to 100 people became rowdy and started to protest.
This forced Mayor Mike O'Brien to clear council from the chambers for a few minutes until the crowd settled down.
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Rogers and Coun. Eric Price were the only ones to stay in the room.
"I felt by leaving, that would be making a statement, that I wasn't willing to stay and face my constituents … it felt wrong to leave," said Rogers.
Although it's not appropriate for people to act that way in a council chamber, she said council understands that people get upset. She said some councillors left to put an end to the disruption at council.
"When I'm upset, I know the worst thing someone can do is walk away from me, I would rather someone stay and just be with me," she said.
With files from Information Morning Fredericton