Festival Foods uses WholeTrees products

This rendering of the forthcoming Festival Foods store in Madison shows how ash trees from Madison and red pine trees from southwest Wisconsin will be used in the support structure of the store in place of steel. The store, in the 800 block of East Washington Avenue, is scheduled to open next August.

As Madison works to remove thousands of ash trees across the city due to fears of an emerald ash borer infestation, a few are now headed to a more prominent destination than the wood chipper.

On Wednesday, the Board of Park Commissioners agreed to partner with Madison-based company WholeTrees to repurpose up to 20 ash trees from Tenney Park for use in construction.

WholeTrees will strip the bark from the trees, treat them and install them a few blocks away from Tenney at the Festival Foods grocery store in the new Galaxie development on East Washington Avenue. In exchange, WholeTrees will donate $1,000 to the city.

“We’re very grateful,” said principal architect and co-founder Roald Gunderson. “We think this is an exciting step for the city of Madison and the community at large.”

There are approximately 10,000 ash trees that need to be removed throughout Madison parks, according to Parks Operations Manager Charlie Romines. Many of those will be made into wood chips for playgrounds across the city or be ground up and sold as mulch for yards or farms.

“I can’t use 10,000 ash trees in the playgrounds,” Romines said.

Though the trees going to Festival Foods are a small number overall, Gunderson and Romines both said it’s a great way to repurpose the doomed trees.

“I think everything we can do to put a silver lining on this huge loss to the community is a good thing,” Gunderson said.

Romines said he’s been working with WholeTrees on and off for about a year, originally talking with the company about building natural playgrounds. The company uses round timber for urban and commercial environments in place of steel, touting the many environmental and structural benefits of the alternative.

Romines said that early on, WholeTrees didn’t have a use for ash trees, but later they came up with some ideas. Then, when they got the contract for Festival Foods, Romines said, they got more serious about it.

“Considering that the vast vast vast majority of ash trees in the parks are not going to be able to be treated or saved in anyway, I think that being able to locally source these whole trees and move them a few blocks and be part of the Festival Foods project is pretty interesting and a pretty great project,” Romines said.

Gunderson said Festival Foods has long focused on where its food comes from and, now, they’ll also be able to share where the building comes from. The one is what you put in your body; the other is what you put your body in, Gunderson said.

“They’re both rather intimate issues,” he said.

As far as he knows, Gunderson said, a project like this hasn’t been done anywhere else.

“They’re big trees and it’s a big project, and it’s very urban. We’ve done this in other urban buildings, but more like a couple trees here and there. This is going to be quite a few trees supporting a big project,” he said.

To select the trees, Gunderson said they will conduct a scanning of the canopy of Tenney Park, using the digital map to inventory trees and plan which ones to use. Romines is not yet sure exactly how Madison parks will use that information, but he said it will likely be helpful in replanting efforts as they work to either restore the canopy to what it was or reshape it for the future.

And both hope this partnership will extend beyond this one project.

“I think we’re interested in developing this as a relationship with Madison and moving forward with additional projects and that this will help the replanting,” Gunderson said.

He said they have had other interest in using urban trees, though nothing is final yet.

“One thing we have is a lot of ash trees we need to come up with solutions for,” Romines said. “If others have ideas, we have plenty of ash, willing to listen.”