United Way is in the business of breathing life into communities. It provides child care, keeps families together, and rescues the homeless. But recently United Way of Miami-Dade, the charity's local branch, committed a murder.
Well, kind of.
It all began in April when the organization purchased the six-story Ansin Building, which stands at one of Miami's busiest intersections, Coral Way and SW Twelfth Avenue, for $4.7 million. The group's board embarked on a plan to spend about $800,000 renovating the nearly 40-year-old structure.
In August workers began an $1800 landscaping makeover. United Way's building management company, Continental Real Estate Companies, hired U.S. Lawns of Broward County to cut down two majestic Manila tamarind trees that shaded the corner, known as Five Points because several streets converge there.
The trees perished on a rainy Thursday afternoon, August 23. Miami Police Ofcr. Cesar Alas was patrolling the area at about 1:00 p.m. when he came upon two trucks and an array of orange cones closing off a lane on SW Twelfth Avenue. Three men were slicing through a tree trunk with a chainsaw. Alas radioed the City of Miami's Coral Way Neighborhood Enhancement Team (NET) headquarters, which is located about one and a half miles away. NET administrator Antonio Wagner and code inspector Mayda Navarro hurried to the scene. "One was cut down and the other was missing all of its limbs," Wagner recounts. "The only thing standing was a trunk."
Wagner asked the U.S. Lawns workers whether they had the permit that is required in Miami before arboreal destruction takes place. They didn't have the paperwork, the NET administrator reports. (U.S. Lawns owner Walter Wright declined comment.)
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United Way of Miami-Dade approved the destruction, acknowledges Tamara Klingler, senior vice president of public relations for the group. She claims the trees were sick. "In high winds they could topple over," Klingler says. "Manila tamarind trees are especially susceptible to strong winds."
Wagner responds that the trees were in perfect condition. He fined United Way and U.S. Lawns $1000 each and required planting of four twenty-foot oaks. "We were disappointed that the trees had to be removed," Klingler says. "We didn't come here and say, 'Cool, let's cut down trees.' One of the reasons we purchased the property was because it is nicely landscaped and there is some shade."
Comments Todd Henry, who has lived near Five Points for 30 years: "With all of [United Way's] power and prestige they should be setting an example for the community. I think [the trees] were cut down because they blocked the view. Embrace your community. Chop down trees, right? Wrong."