Picture a street lined with trees – the big, beautiful ones that arch overhead, enveloping visitors in a tunnel of shady, refreshing green.
Now picture that tunnel over Atlantic Avenue.
The signature strip of the city’s tourism epicenter is better known for its crowded sidewalks, ice cream shops and towering hotels than for its foliage.
There’s a good reason: Few species can withstand the Oceanfront’s salt assault – seawater droplets that blow ferociously across the dunes and into the land. Every year it coats the leaves of trees, burning them away and making extensive tree planting seem futile.
But that doesn’t mean no one has tried.
For 30 years, arborists and other city beautifiers have searched for the perfect Oceanfront tree. They’ve studied so-called “great streets” in Portland, Ore., Charleston, S.C., and Chicago that draw people into cafes and shops under leafy green canopies. They’ve planted trees and watched some wither while others thrive. In the battle of man versus nature, they’ve tried to wrest a lofty canopy from an environment where nature says there should be none.
And they’re still trying.
“It’s been a long, treacherous road to find the perfect tree down there,” said Billy Almond, vice chairman of the Resort Advisory Commission and a landscaper. “I think we’re still searching…. The jury’s out on all of it.”
Today, tall London planetrees, topiary-like ligustrums and Chinese elms dot Atlantic Avenue and nearby streets. A lot of trial and error went into finding them, but it was worth it, city arborist Susan French said.
Trees soak up stormwater and anchor soil that otherwise could erode into the ocean, she said. They cool the street, produce oxygen and take in nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, that are harmful to the bay.
“And communities that have more landscaping and trees create more of a friendly environment for people to meet and circulate in,” French said. “They create stronger communities.”
Unfortunately, the Oceanfront is a rough spot for trees.
Atlantic Avenue in particular isn’t one big environment, but rather a series of microclimates. Plants that thrive in a spot sheltered behind a hotel will wither in strong salt winds a few feet away. That has made it hard to line the street with just one kind of tree.
The city made its first attempt in the 1980s during a revitalization campaign. Almond, who has lived in Virginia Beach since 1952, said before that campaign, signs and power lines hung over sidewalks. At Christmas, lights were strung up between poles because there were no trees.
“Atlantic Avenue basically had gotten to a point where it was starting to look tired,” he said.
Trees played a big part in a facelift.
London planetrees – a large-leaf tree similar to the American sycamore – were planted in sidewalk wells up and down Atlantic Avenue. And they looked great – at first.
Then the salty wind kicked in. The trees that were sheltered cozily behind hotels did fine. But others, planted in the wind tunnels that form between hotels, were burned by nor’easters.
By 1999, the city was spending $10,000 to $12,000 to replace about 150 trees a year.
Finding a tree that will thrive on an urban street is difficult enough without the ocean nearby. Urban trees have to be tall enough so people can walk underneath, and slender enough to stay out of the road. They can’t drop fruit, needles or cones, and they have to tolerate ample car exhaust and occasional vandalism.
Then there’s the salt spray.
In 1999, tree specialists from the city and Virginia Tech ran a study on the effects of salt spray in the hope of finding a tree that would work. The results were dismal.
Of eight species tested, including the fernlike thornless honeylocust and the dwarf Southern magnolia, not one was aesthetically acceptable after one year in moderate- to high-wind exposure. The trees turned twiggy and dry, thin and misshapen.
The arborists didn’t give up. They tried washing the salt off trees after strong storms. They even considered palm trees.
Almond said in the 1980s, some hotels began to plant palms, which resist salt but need to be wrapped in plastic over the winter. That made the Oceanfront look as if it were closed at the very time the city was marketing itself as a year-round destination, Almond said.
Plus, although tourists love palm trees, locals don’t.
“We’ve got this philosophical battle between people who have lived here all their lives and understand what a Tidewater landscape looks like, and the folks trying to create a resort environment for our tourism industry,” Almond said.
Eventually arborists hit on the ligustrum, a woody shrub that can be prodded to grow about 20 feet tall. It looks more like a short topiary than a tall, leafy tree, and the ones lining Atlantic Avenue have reached only about 8 to 10 feet tall. But their waxy leaves can withstand a lot of salt, and they’ve added a green element to the street.
A more recent discovery is the Chinese elm. Taller and broader with pretty, patchy bark, it fared well after being planted around 2005 in areas a little farther from the water. A few years later it was moved up to Atlantic, where it’s doing surprisingly well, Fentress said.
“I’m very hopeful we’ll be able to get more canopy on Atlantic Avenue,” he said.
There have been some setbacks, including a two-week dry nor’easter this spring that forced many trees to regrow their leaves.
But there has also been a lot of progress. The city spends only about $1,000 to $1,500 a year replacing fewer than 10 trees because of salt damage, Fentress said. And, there’s now green in the streets.
“If you look down Atlantic Avenue, you don’t see a regular, tree-lined street in a neighborhood,” Fentress said. “You see a different type of urban streetscape with a mixture of trees and taller buildings and lights. We would like to have as much vegetation down there as we can, realizing we may never have tree-lined streets.”
Almond wants to try a type of basswood he has seen thrive in an Oceanfront neighborhood. Fentress said a new kind of soil lets the roots of trees at the Laskin Road gateway spread out under the sidewalks, letting the trees’ canopies spread wider as well.
French wants to plant more live oak. It is, after all, the city tree of Virginia Beach, she said.
And there might be something else in store for 19th Street, as renovations between the city convention center and the beach are made.
“We want a tree that’s going to canopy out over the street,” Almond said. “What that ends up being, God knows.”
Elisabeth Hulette, 757-222-5097, firstname.lastname@example.org
© July 7, 2013