A large eucalyptus tree towers over the 1700 block of Main Street in Huntington Beach. Some consider the downtown tree historic, while others think of it a safety hazard and a nuisance. (SCOTT SMELTZER, HB Independent / May 5, 2012)

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It's a towering anomaly on a block of saplings and slender pines, a cluster of branches that extend toward the sky and a bulging sidewalk that looks like an underground fist has punched it in the same direction.

No one traveling south from Huntington Beach High School or City Hall could miss the massive eucalyptus in front of 1751 Main St.

The roots have lifted the concrete so high — 15 inches — that the area in front of the house resembles a makeshift skateboard ramp. According to neighbors, some kids use it for exactly that purpose. They gather momentum on the long, flat stretch of pavement and then sail off the bump.

The tree has an athletic look of its own: The trunk, encased in a strip of grass between the sidewalk and curb, twists toward the street, as if ready to leap off, the grooves in its bark like the pleats of a wind-swept skirt.

Sandy Jarema, who lives behind the eucalyptus, said she's seen old maps of the city that indicate it was there before the concrete it now rearranges.

"You can see, there's no house," she said. "There's just the land and that tree."

But even if the tree predates Huntington, it appears the city will outlive it. The Beautification, Landscape and Tree Committee voted April 30 to remove 17 trees from Main between Adams and Utica avenues, and the eucalyptus in front of Jarema's house is among them.

The city aims to remove the trees not for visual purposes, but for safety.

Later this year, it plans to repair the sidewalk, pavement, curb and gutter on that stretch of Main, and the trees will have to come down first — in part because some of them might topple over with their casing removed. Under the wrong circumstances, that could mean a fatality.

Travis Hopkins, the city's director of public works, pointed to an incident last September along the Newport Beach-Costa Mesa border, when a eucalyptus fell and crushed a woman in her car as she was waiting at a red light.

In place of the trees that are coming down, Huntington officials plan to install new ones — with a foresight that the original planters didn't have, possibly because, in at least one case, they didn't have a sidewalk with which to contend.

"No one knew, when they planted them years ago, the impact it would have," Hopkins said. "But now we typically don't plant trees that outgrow the room in the parkways."


A landmark and a hazard

Jean Nagy, the president of the Huntington Beach Tree Society, sees the pending removal of the eucalyptus as two stories in one. The first is about a neighborhood losing a visual icon, and, of course, the air losing the environmental benefits the tree brings.

The second story is about the modernization of Surf City. Five years ago, Nagy got down in the dirt with other volunteers and city officials. They set to work planting Camphors — potentially huge trees that line medians up and down Main and, someday, could loom as high as the eucalyptus.

But there's a key difference, she noted: Those trees are contained inside the median, which means plenty of room and no sidewalk to poke through.

In the future, she said, that will likely be the home of oversized trees in her neighborhood, at least outside of parks.

"Children don't get to see these big trees when you live in a city situation," Nagy said. "But since we've put so many houses close together, that's a whole problem too. How can you let these trees stay so big when the houses are so close together?"

Nagy expressed sadness about the eucalyptus, which she called "a piece of history." But she admitted that the city had few alternatives.