A tree believed to date to the time of William Penn could be cut down to make way for an office building on City Avenue in Bala Cynwyd.
The majestic oak stands gracefully — if somewhat incongruously — in the middle of a parking lot at an office center at 401 City Ave. Despite the surrounding real estate, the 89-foot tree fills a space that seems almost deliberately set aside for it to thrive.
That could change if looming development plans are approved by Lower Merion Township.
Susquehanna International Group (SIG), a global trading and technology firm, wants to expand its nearby headquarters and move into a new building, complete with a multistory parking garage linked by a pedestrian bridge. That plan calls for paving over the parking lot and the patch of mulch that surrounds the tree.
Lower Merion officials sent the company’s initial development plan back for revisions to conform with the zoning code. A new version is expected in January, said Chris Leswing, director of building and planning.
“We’re waiting for plans, and we don’t know if it’s going to include the tree or not,” he said.
Officials at SIG did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Nor did George Broseman, a zoning and land-use lawyer who is listed as the applicant for the plan.
The possibility of losing the tree has set a number of residents, arborists, and environmentalists on edge and sparked a campaign to save it.
Researchers estimate that the tree is more than 300 years old. It’s thought to have been alive before Penn first visited the green colony he would dub “Penn’s woods.”
Drawing from its history, arborists have categorized the oak as a “Penn tree." It is listed in the 1981 book Penn’s Woods, which indexed dozens of the oldest trees in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The over-cup oak along City Avenue is one of an estimated 300 Penn trees still alive.
Many such trees died from neglect or disease. Some have been so heavily pruned, authors Halfred W. Wertz and M. Joy Callender wrote in Penn’s Woods, that they "hardly suggest their former majesty.” Others fell to development. Conservationists fear that the oak along City Avenue could go the same way.
The township’s Environmental Advisory Council, a citizens' organization, and the Lower Merion Shade Tree Commission wrote letters asking the developer to spare the tree.
“They’re required to have an open recreation space for the City Avenue ordinance," said Brian K. Hoppy, president of the Environmental Advisory Council and senior vice president of HDR Inc., an architecture and engineering firm. “By having that tree there — it’s a historic tree — it can be incorporated as part of the design. ... It can do that pretty successfully, and give them a landmark to showcase in the region.”
The oak is a visual standout among scrub pines and saplings, towering above its neighbors. It’s robust and healthy, said Maurine McGeehan, executive director of the Lower Merion Conservancy.
The tree is listed on the Pennsylvania Champion Tree Registry, an inventory of the largest trees in each species around the state. The registry, however, does not have the authority to preserve trees.
The last time the oak was measured, in 2017, its trunk had a circumference of about 18 feet and its branches spanned 117 feet, according to the registry. At the base of the tree, a plaque from the International Society of Arboriculture and the National Arborist Association recognizes the tree’s age.
“This tree is well-known,” said Rich Widmann, a member of the Shade Tree Commission. “The old arborists all know it.” But whether the tree’s history will spare it from being felled is uncertain.
For now, township officials await the revised plans, and at some point, the board of commissioners will discuss the tree’s fate.
The board’s influence is limited because the tree is on private property, said Township Commissioner George Manos, who represents Ward 9, which includes the tree.
“We have to wait for all the factors,” he said. “It’s important to save the tree. Whether it can be saved is something that, technically speaking, is out of the ward’s control. That tree is on their property. If it was on the sidewalk or township’s right of way, we’d have considerable control.
“How you approach something like that is a very challenging issue, I have to tell you,” he said. "When you’re in a situation where you don’t have a lot of technical leverage, sometimes public pressure will help.”