The chainsaws were going full bore Thursday at the Empress Hotel, as workers felled an enormous but unhealthy arbutus tree as part of a garden revamp.
Also gone are two weeping sequoias that framed the Government Street walkway, a high hedge along Belleville Street and part of the rose garden at the south end of the property.
The changes are part of “a beautification process on our property with the intent of opening up the lawn to the residents and visitors to Victoria,” said hotel spokeswoman Angela Rafuse-Tahir.
“This process is part of our master plan being created with our new owners, to renovate and restore our iconic hotel.”
Fencing, along with diseased and potentially hazardous hedges, trees and structures on the site are being removed, she said.
Nat and Flora Bosa purchased the 107-year-old National Historic Site last August and have said they expect to spend more than $30 million on the 477-room hotel without changing the exterior of the building.
Veteran pedicab driver Gerry Vizner, who parks across the street, thinks the landscaping changes have gone too far, however. “Those two weeping sequoias were the most talked-about trees in Victoria,” he said.
His customers constantly commented on them, wanting to know what they were and whether they were trained to bend over. He also misses a large magnolia tree near the hotel driveway and several old holly bushes near the Emily Carr statue at Belleville Street. “From a personal tourism standpoint, I think they’ve taken out too much,” Vizner said.
Rafuse-Tahir did not address questions about the sequoias, but said in an email that several tree roots were starting to push up and impede walkways.
The City of Victoria provided a permit for the removal of the arbutus, which is more than 60 years old, since it had been in decline for many years, said city spokeswoman Katie Hamilton.
Rafuse-Tahir said permits were acquired for the removal of trees. Flower beds will line the wide pathway — also under construction — leading to the Empress sign, she said. The city’s tree preservation bylaw protects trees on private property with trunks more than 80 centimetres in diameter. The sequoias were undersized and do not require replacement, Hamilton said, but two arbutus trees will be planted in place of the arbutus that was removed.
Wood salvaged from all three trees may end up repurposed as furniture or decor in the forthcoming interior renovation, Rafuse-Tahir said.
This story has been edited to correct a factual error.