In a February meeting with members of the science faculty, Associate Provost for Science & Technology James Slattery presented tentative plans for the new Yale Biology Building, a multifunctional facility slated to be built in the footprint of the J.W. Gibbs Laboratory on Science Hill. When professor of biology Sidney Altman asked about what would happen to the surrounding trees — four massive oaks alongside the Gibbs laboratory — the response by the associate provost stuck with him.
“I asked Slattery specifically about [the trees],” Altman said. “And he had no emotion when he said they are going to be cut down.”
Slattery declined to comment.
According to molecular biophysics and biochemistry and physics professor Jonathon Howard, who serves on the building planning committee, planning is still in its early stages and there is no formalized design for the building. Still, he said it is “quite possible” that the trees between Gibbs and the Whitney Avenue Lot 22 parking lot would have to be removed to accommodate the larger footprint of the new building.
“I am a great tree lover — don’t get me wrong, I love trees — but on the other hand, this is going to be an absolutely fantastic opportunity for biology at Yale,” Howard said.
To some faculty, the fate of the four trees — two of which predate the 1955 construction of Gibbs — is just one issue in a host of roadblocks that have delayed the construction of the project for over a decade. After two different building designs, construction was set to begin in early 2008 on the parking lot but was postponed with the onset of the global financial crisis. Seven years later, the University has largely scrapped the 2008 design and now plans to break ground on the site of the soon-to-be demolished Gibbs Laboratory, with an August 2019 deadline for completing the building in mind.
Provost Benjamin Polak said in December that the decision to relocate the building made sense because the Gibbs building is “at the end of its practical life” and would eventually need to be torn down. He added this new location would facilitate closer connections to other departments on Science Hill.
But throughout the redesigns and relocations, one thing had previously been non-negotiable: The trees would have to stay.
“We were told that we had to protect the trees, so we worked around them,” said molecular, cellular and developmental biology professor Thomas Pollard, former chair of the MCDB Building Committee and former dean of the Graduate School. “We were told that we couldn’t touch the trees.”
That, however, appears to have changed.
Faculty learned at the meeting that there was a new idea to construct a building with a much larger footprint than the Gibbs building currently occupies. The outline of the new building will likely cover the place where the four oak trees currently stand, multiple faculty members confirmed.
MCDB professor Joel Rosenbaum described the trees as huge in size and estimated that they had to be at least 100 years old.
“Now, it is not that trees haven’t been cut down for buildings before,” Rosenbaum said. “But you have to ask, is it necessary since they are quite old?”
And those may not be the only trees that will be uprooted to create a new home for biology at Yale.
Some professors expressed concern that nine trees that were planted in the early 2000s in the courtyard near Kline Biology Tower will likely have to go as well.
Howard said that though he was unsure about the status of trees in the courtyard, there would be no infringement on Sachem’s Woods — which is located at the northern foot of Science Hill.
This is not the first time Yale has faced scrutiny for its landscaping practices.
During construction for the Daniel L. Malone Engineering Research Building, completed in 2005, the University had to cut down one of the last surviving original elm trees in the city.
Tree experts interviewed, however, said the city of New Haven and the Connecticut government cannot intervene when trees on private property are going to be cut down.
Murphy-Dunning said trees planted in the area between the sidewalk and the street, otherwise known as “the right of way,” fall under public land. Any legal decisions made about those trees would have to be made by a tree warden, who is employed by the city of New Haven, she added.
But the trees in question are on Yale’s private property and would therefore not fall under the jurisdiction of the city or the tree warden, said Rebecca Bombero, director of New Haven Parks, Recreation and Trees.
“Yale is responsible for any trees on their property, and I would not be a player in their decision,” Tree Warden for New Haven Christy Hass said in an email.
However, Bombero added that receiving permission to cut down the trees may be required as part of the site plan review, which would be handled by the New Haven City Plan Department.
Murphy-Dunning noted that there are no laws within the state of Connecticut protecting specific types of endangered trees. But sometimes the city will require private entities performing large-scale development projects to plant new trees elsewhere in the vicinity when construction necessitates cutting down trees, Murphy-Dunning said.
Professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry and Deputy Provost for Teaching and Learning Scott Strobel, whose office is in Gibbs, said that if the trees are cut down, he hopes the University will hire a company like City Bench to mill the wood and use it to create furniture for the new building.
“City Bench did some fantastic work at SOM where trees were removed to build Evans Hall and at Stiles College where a large oak tree was,” Strobel said in a Thursday email.
However, the risk remains that if the surrounding community were to express discontent with the removal of the trees for this project, it could elongate the planning process and delay the project even further.
“I am concerned how the community inside and outside the department will react to [the removal of the oak trees],” Pollard said.