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Merlin Radke built his St. Johns home around a bigleaf maple, and the Tree Emergency Response Team is rallying to save it

PMG PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - Ashley Meyer, a project coordinator for the Tree Emergency Response Team, points at the bigleaf maple that sprouts from the Radke property in Portland. The man named Merlin wrapped his home around a tree, and lived happily… until the forces of change came calling.

It sounds like something ripped from the pages of "The Overstory," the recent Pulitzer Prize winning novel that features a subplot about a Portlander fighting to save a strand of trees from city saws.

But unlike Richard Powers' fiction, this story is true.

Longtime residents will remember Merlin Radke for his auto parts store, which closed its doors after more than 80 years in business in 2015.

Radke built several homes on his secluded property at 6285 N. Fessenden St., including one with the bole of the tree branching through the roof. The mossy sentinel twists and turns in on itself, and was never pruned during Radke's lifetime, due to his fears that arborists might harm the tree.

On his death, the property was deeded to Warner Pacific College, according to local activists with the Tree Emergency Response Team. It seems the institution didn't have much interest in the property. Multnomah County property tax records show the lot is owned by Fish Construction NW, who purchased the land last year for $470,000.

Here's where the story gets complicated.



"Normally when you think of trees that are about to be cut down — you immediately think, 'oh, it's the developer's fault,'" says Ashley Meyer, a project coordinator for the response team. "That's what Captain Planet taught us."

But developer Jeff Fish is well known for his commitment to building affordable starter homes aimed at first-time buyers. Meyer says she met with Fish and learned that the Portland Bureau of Transportation is requiring him to build the project's new driveway on Cecelia Street.

If the driveway let out on Fessenden — an admittedly busier thoroughfare — more of the walnut, cherry, cedar and maple trees on the roughly 7,500-square-foot property could be saved, according to Meyer, including the one built into the house.

Meyer and other activists held a solemn protest Sunday, Jan. 19, in order to push PBOT to consider a variance for the development.

Laura Wilson, who has captured trees in paint for the Elisabeth Jones Art Center, says the effort is about more than just saving shade.

"It's really innovative how they valued the tree in that time," she said. "This is an opportunity for us and the community to say: let's preserve."

PBOT spokesman Dylan Rivera says the developer, who did not respond to a request for comment, plans to add four more homes to the lot. Rivera believes the tree in question would likely not have survived major reconstruction of the home, even if the home were saved from demolition.

The creation of a shared driveway on Cecelia should preserve four street trees on Fessenden, which is intended to be a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood bikeway, Rivera added.

"We don't want so many driveways on N. Fessenden if we can avoid it," he said. "That would have cars crossing the sidewalk and bike lane on a busy neighborhood collector street that connects many neighborhoods in North Portland."

PMG PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - Activists held a rally for the Radke trees in the St. Johns neighborhood of Portland on Sunday, Jan. 19.


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