For nearly two decades the landscaped vacant lot next to the AMA building, between State and Wabash and right across the street from the Reader’s office on Illinois, has served as an ersatz neighborhood park–complete with sniffing dogs, lunching office workers, and drug dealers. When we heard recently about plans for a 35-story residential/hotel tower there, we knew the benches and fountains were history. Worse, the plaza’s 26 red maple trees seemed doomed. Sure enough, during the last week of September they were uprooted in dramatic fashion. But they haven’t gone to the chipper.

Barbara Wood, the Chicago Park District’s deputy director of natural resources (and before that its chief landscape architect), received a “communication” from the John Buck Company, the developer of the property, back in May asking if the CPD would like to have the trees. She told them, “We don’t have the means to move them.”

Wood hates to turn down donations from the public, but sometimes the cost is too high or there’s no good reason to accept–an offer of a withering bush, for instance. Still, “You’re supposed to be green,” more than one would-be donor has complained. Wood heard nothing more from the developer until mid-September, when word came that a man with a giant tree spade was on his way up from Texas. Where should he put the soon-to-be-former-AMA trees?

A tree spade’s a conical apparatus with several large shovels attached to an armature. The armature is placed around the tree trunk, and the hydraulically powered shovels cut out an inverted pyramid of soil containing, hopefully, most of the tree’s roots. For the AMA job, a 109-inch spade was used, meaning that the root ball was just over nine feet across on top and almost seven feet deep. That’s actually not that big as these things go. Environmental Design, which sent the man from Texas, offers “customized transplant solutions for any application,” including such prodigies of vanity as moving a 60-foot-tall oak from a vineyard to Francis Ford Coppola’s front yard. (Check it out at; look under “Clients.”)

Wood’s challenge was to find a park that could use more trees and then places within that park where the tree spade wouldn’t slice through underground plumbing and wiring. (Curiously, the Park District has better records of old utility work by CPD employees than new: “Now that all engineering design and installation is done through consultants,” says Wood, “sometimes we don’t get updated drawings.”) She found room for the AMA refugees on the east side of Humboldt Park, where they’d be placed in six separate groupings. Besides being a large historic park in need of replacement trees, Humboldt had another advantage: it’s pretty much a straight shot along Grand from the AMA plaza, with no undersized viaducts along the way. The trees lie almost horizontally on the truck, but they still need a clearance of 13 and a half feet.

Of course, two dozen seven-foot-deep holes don’t enhance a construction site, so the tree-spade operator made a systematic dirt swap: after each tree was planted at the park, he dug the hole for the next one and carried that ball of dirt back to the AMA to plug the hole there. It took him roughly a week, moving an average of four trees a day.

Operation Transplant wasn’t cheap. JBC paid about $2,000 per tree, and the Park District will pony up about $700 each for mulching and watering in their new habitat. For comparison, $2,500 would buy three of the smaller, nursery trees the Park District normally plants–and those have a survival advantage because their roots have been pruned, meaning fewer will be cut when the trees are moved.

Will the 26 maples survive the shock of being uprooted? The tree movers claim a 98 percent success rate. Barbara Wood would be happy if three out of four made it but says it will still have been worth the effort if only half live to drop their red leaves on the west side. v

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Tree spade at AMA Plaza by Chicago Reader.