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This huge oak tree is what some St. Elmo locals want to save as the new mixed use development is slated to go before the city council next month. The tree is located on the west side of the 3734 St. Elmo Ave. property where a SunTrust Bank once operated.

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The proposed rezoning of property in St. Elmo for a planned $21 million mixed-use project is slated to go before the Chattanooga City Council on July 9.

An online petition to save a historic oak tree, which could be cut down to make way for new development in St. Elmo including a parking garage, has drawn about 500 signatures.

The petition, which is aiming for 1,000 signatures, said the tree at 3734 St. Elmo Ave., is a 150-year-old centennial oak.

"Developers are planning to cut down the last big centennial oak tree in downtown St. Elmo," said the petition. "We want to generate love and 1,000 signatures to show them how much value this tree can have for their plans by keeping it."

However, the project's engineer said the likelihood of saving the oak tree is "pretty low."

Ben Berry, president of Berry Engineers, said the area around the tree that includes the so-called "drip line" of its branches, plus more, would have to be undisturbed and that would "render that property nearly undevelopable."

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This huge oak tree is what some St. Elmo locals want to save as the new mixed use development is slated to go before the city council next month. The tree is located on the west side of the 3734 St. Elmo Ave. property where a SunTrust Bank once operated.

"The concept plan that is part of the rezoning [of the property] does not save the tree," he said.

Berry said plans for the $21 million mixed use development in the heart of St. Elmo call for planting new trees, including streetscaping Tennessee Avenue.

"We'd be providing street trees along Tennessee Avenue which would grow and mature and produce a nice shaded pedestrian corridor," he said. "There's not a lot of pedestrian amenities in the area. This development adds trees on Tennessee Avenue and St. Elmo Avenue and a pedestrian courtyard."

The tree sits on a block that now holds a vacant former SunTrust Bank branch and some smaller cherry blossom trees the petitioners want to save.

As part of a the project, the site would be cleared to make way for a parking garage, shops and possible boutique hotel. Also, across West 38th Street, a triangular tract that holds the Tap Room Building and 1885 restaurant would hold more development, including new housing.

Jim Johnson of Chattanoogans for Responsible Development said the tree has been given the name "Old Oakey."

"It's hard to cut down something that has a name," he said.

But, Johnson said, the situation is challenging for preservationists because it's on private property and there's no city ordinance to stop the cutting down of the oak tree.

He wondered if it was possible to work with the developer to find a solution that wouldn't disrupt the project.

Longer term, Johnson said, some cities such as Atlanta have a tree ordinance. If a tree is larger than a certain diameter and older than a particular age, a permit is needed to cut it down, according to Atlanta's tree ordinance.

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This huge oak tree is what some St. Elmo locals want to save as the new mixed use development is slated to go before the city council next month. The tree is located on the west side of the 3734 St. Elmo Ave. property where a SunTrust Bank once operated.

The petition said that its signers believe destroying the trees does not need to happen.

"The trees will beautify any man-made construction. Plus they provide shade for residents and passersby, a climbing spot for adventurers, and even a sound barrier from local processing plants," the petition said.

The organizers said that once its 1,000-signature goal is reached, plans are to present the petition to the developer.

"We encourage their design to work around demolition for their own place-making and positive public relations as well as for the people who love these trees and the critters they house and the shade we are blessed with," the petition said.

Earlier this month, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency unanimously recommend rezoning four tracts owned by Claudia Pullen for the project.

Berry said no one spoke against the project before the Planning Commission.

In all, more than 100,000 square feet of office, retail space or residential is planned, not including the possible hotel.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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This huge oak tree is what some St. Elmo locals want to save as the new mixed use development is slated to go before the city council next month. The tree is located on the west side of the 3734 St. Elmo Ave. property where a SunTrust Bank once operated.
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