On June 18, neighbors of Virginia Park, located just north of W. Liberty Street in Ann Arbor, received a letter from the city. The note from parks and recreation services manager Colin Smith alerted them to the filming of the Rob Reiner movie “Flipped,” to take place towards the end of July. Construction of the set, according to the letter, would begin as early as June 22.
Part of the set construction involved trimming some branches on two of the park’s sycamore trees – a task that was begun the same week as the letter sent from the city.
But the trimming was interrupted, and wasn’t completed until this last Friday morning – under the scrutiny of an Ann Arbor police officer, locations staff from the movie, Craig Hupy (head of systems planning for the city), Kerry Gray (coordinator for urban forestry and natural resources planning), Kay Sicheneder (city forester), plus a half-dozen interested neighbors.
Some of the neighbors were skeptical about the trim job for the sycamore tree, which is slated for movie stardom in a story involving a little girl who’s trying to save a tree. Their interest in the the city’s approach to tree management had been piqued by the recent removal of some street trees in the vicinity. But there was no “trouble” on Friday morning.
The only incident that might qualify as “trouble” had taken place a week prior.
Why Trim the Trees?
The story of “Flipped” partly involves a young girl, Juli, who’s trying to save a tree. In the identically-named youth novel by Wendelin Van Draanen, on which the movie is based, it’s a lone sycamore tree that Juli wants to save. [For readers interested in more detail of the story, the Ann Arbor District Library owns 12 copies of the book. On Friday they were all checked out, with 32 patrons on the wait list, counting The Chronicle.]
According to Gray, the pair of trees receiving the trim on Friday morning are actually London Plane trees – a hybrid of the Oriental and American sycamore trees.
When Gray arrived at the park, resident Kirsten Williams struck up a conversation with her. Williams wanted to know why the trees couldn’t be digitally trimmed. “That’s what technology is for!” she said.
The Chronicle confirmed with Warner Bros. (which is, for now, handling public relations for the Castle Rock Entertainment production company about the movie) that part of the plan is, in fact, to use digital editing technology. Digital technology will be used to remove one of the trees completely. The trimming of the two trees was undertaken to achieve a visual separation of the tree canopies, to allow digital removal of the second tree – the one to the north. The resulting shot will depict a single, lone free-standing tree, as in the book.
As an interesting contrast to the digital approach to recording and editing images, here’s a pinhole photograph of one of the Virginia Park sycamores, taken by local photographer, Matt Callow: [Virginia Park Sycamore]
Movie Set Tree Trimming Interrupted
Friday a week ago, when the letter went out to neighbors about the upcoming movie set construction and filming, The Chronicle headed over to Virginia Park to have a look. There we chanced across Sue Perry, a resident who lives in the vicinity of the park, walking her dog. She reported that the trim work had already begun, but that she’d stopped it.
She’d accomplished that by simply inserting herself physically between the cherry-picker and the tree, she said, and not budging, even after city staffers raised the possibility of involving the police or Mayor John Hieftje. The name Hieftje did not intimidate her, she contended – she’d shared a real estate office with him years ago, when the mayor was still in that line of work.
So the city had packed up its trimming gear and left the task for another time, which proved to be this last Friday. Perry was also present watching, but there was no drama beyond critical commentary.
Completion of the Trimming: Action! Cut!
The trimming on Friday morning took place under the direction of Kay Sicheneder, city forester. Two city workers in a cherry-picker made their cuts to the branches as Sicheneder pointed out the branches to be lopped. Watching with The Chronicle and a small handful of neighbors, Kerry Gray (coordinator for urban forestry with the city) explained that the canopy would grow back as “advantageous buds” came forth. That assurance was met with skepticism by some: “But that will take decades! They’re totally wrecking the shape of the tree.”
Still, at least one neighbor did not assess the final result as a complete disaster. Said Marilee Woodworth, “If this is it, I don’t think this looks too bad.”
There had been discussion of the possibility of using a cable and ratcheting winch to bend some of the branches out of the way, to eliminate the need for branch cutting. But in the end, the separation of the two canopies was achieved without trying the cable tie-back method. Gray said that the sycamore branches were not particularly amenable to bending, and that splitting a branch under the stress was a risk – if the split went back to the trunk then it would expose the tree to disease.
What the City of Ann Arbor Gets
Chronicle readers will no doubt be familiar with the incentives offered by the state of Michigan to encourage movie making here. The basic idea is that movie production helps the local economy – the workers have to eat and sleep somewhere, and there are jobs created for locals or work for existing businesses that would not otherwise exist. For example, although the road constructed for the set (a real road that will bear vehicular weight) will be dressed up by production company “scenics” to make it look like it’s been there a while, the road itself is being built by a local company.
Beyond the possible general boost to the area’s economy, the movie will infuse a modest amount of cash straight into city of Ann Arbor coffers. According to Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation services manager, Virginia Park is being rented out by Castle Rock Entertainment at the standard rate for park rental – $100 a day. According to Chronicle calculations, the 49 days between June 22 and the final restoration of the park to be completed on August 7 will yield $4,900 in revenue to the city.
The park is to be restored to its original condition, which will include the replacement of the basketball court.
In addition to that, Castle Rock is making a contribution to the city of Ann Arbor parks and recreation scholarship fund, which benefits income-eligible residents. Use of a second set location, near Thurston Pond on property owned by the Ann Arbor Public School system, includes a donation to the Thurston Nature Center.
Trees in General
The skepticism among some neighbors about the movie set tree trimming comes from a heightened awareness in the Virginia Park neighborhood of the city’s approach to tree maintenance. That heightened awareness and interest stems partly from the recent removal of some street trees there for reasons that are not clear to residents.
In fact, The Chronicle happened upon the movie set tree trimming on Friday morning on our way to photograph a linden tree on Bemidji Drive near Virginia Park, which is marked for removal if no solution can be found for the roots that have heaved the sidewalk.
The challenge there is how to leave the buttressing roots in place that are crucial to the support of the tree, but have wrecked the sidewalk. Three slabs of sidewalk have been removed and the revealed roots have sat for a couple of weeks as city staff and the property owner work through the options. According to Kerry Gray, planing down the roots isn’t an option. One possibility is to bend the sidewalk around the roots by going outside the city’s sidewalk right-of-way, which would require permission from the property owner.
Pouring concrete right over the roots so that there’s a hump is in theory a possibility, but would be subject to an Americans with Disabilities Act requirement that the resulting slope is not greater than 5% – in which case a handrail would be required. One obvious downside to that approach is that the roots would continue to raise the sidewalk and the property owner would eventually be faced with the same problem in the future.
The Chronicle met with a former city of Ann Arbor arborist, Cam Knight, along with resident Gary Woodworth last Saturday morning, June 20, to get Knight’s assessment of the Bemidji linden tree. “Is this tree a candidate for root pruning?” was what Woodworth wanted to know. Knight was not overly optimistic that pruning the roots of the tree would be feasible – his assessment was that it appeared to have already been tried before. “Six of one, half dozen of the other,” he allowed. Lindens, he said, aren’t “the most trustworthy of trees.” But then again, he said, “Any tree can fall over.”
In the course of the time spent Friday evening and Saturday morning a week ago, plus this past Friday morning with neighbors and city staff, it seems evident that at least some of the friction over tree removals might be eased if communication about city policies and strategies for managing the city’s trees were more successful.
To that end, the city is hosting an information session at Slauson Middle School on Monday, June 29, starting at 7 p.m. [confirm date]
The meeting will include information about the city’s plan to plant trees – which will likely include the plan to use storm water funds to plant trees. In the first proposals for the city’s FY 2010 budget made in April (and since adopted by Ann Arbor’s city council) an additional 600 trees per year were to be planted.