Part II – Arborcidal Design For Fountain Trees at Washington Square. Will City’s Parks Department Address This At Last?

Dead Tree #1 - by the Arch (3rd time)

The New York City Parks Department has a page on their web site dedicated to tree damage and arborcide which states:

It is illegal and punishable by law for citizens to remove, kill, or damage a street or park tree, whether intentionally or accidentally.

In April 2008, The New York Times wrote of two incidents of person(s) killing trees in Soho and Inwood Hill Park. Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe said at the time: “there is a city law against arborcide, passed during Mr. [Henry] Stern’s tenure as commissioner, that provides for fines of up to $15,000 and even jail time for tree killers.”

So what can be done when the tree killing is being done by the Parks Department itself?

It’s striking enough that under this Parks Department and Mayor thousands of trees have been unnecessarily felled. When Mike Bloomberg and Parks Commissioner Benepe talk about their “MillionTrees Initiative,” it’s one of the biggest greenwashing ruses possibly that exists, at least within this urban environment.

Dead Tree #2 - east side (3rd time)

The seven trees that have died around the fountain – planted and replanted; it totals seven over 2 years – presumably weren’t meant to be killed, but, due to an inappropriate design and lack of follow-through by the Parks Department, that is the result. In two locations, new trees have died three times after being planted. (Seven of the tree locations that surround the fountain are new and part of the park’s redesign; the new trees have replaced the previous 40+ year old trees which were healthy and thriving. More on this below.)

The dead trees were brought up at a Community Board 2 Parks Committee meeting in December 2009 (note: the Community Board has not addressed this since).

I wrote at that time:

There was one item of note: A brief discussion on why two of the new trees planted around the Washington Square Park Fountain died earlier this year. Landscape designer George Vellonakis insisted [note: when I asked] that there is “no drainage problem” and that it was just a result of the construction (which is troubling, if so, also).

I encountered a landscape architect at the park one day in August when the two trees were being dug up and removed who informed me that the (new) design is not appropriate for proper water drainage with structural soil and that this diminishes (perhaps eliminates) the tree’s ability to survive.

Latest #3 - west (as it was dying)

Seven of the trees that lined the Fountain (close to forty years old) were axed because of the Bloomberg Administration’s desire to relocate the Washington Square Park Fountain 22 feet east so that it would align with the Arch at Fifth Avenue. The Fountain had been in its previous location since 1871.

The true test will be if the new trees planted survive. If they don’t, let’s hope that the Parks Department will take some corrective action.  It seems wrong to sacrifice living trees for a potentially flawed design.

What I didn’t write when I first reported this — the landscape architect I encountered had strong ties to, and inside knowledge of, the Parks Department and was very familiar with structural soil (which is what is being used around the Fountain trees). He told me at the time that it was possible that all the trees would eventually die (and now we see that a third one has).

I’ve since also been told more recently by another expert that the roots are too deep and the tree’s roots are being suffocated. (Also, see this informative comment at WSP Blog left this morning.)

Neighborhood activist Sharon Woolums interviewed a “tree expert” who looked at the trees and confirmed all of the above. From her piece in the Villager from December 2009:

First, the tree pits they were planted in were a huge mistake because there appears to be no drainage capability! [Richard] Hawthorne surmised it was a design detail that won, over advice from any certified arborist.

“Instead of planting them in a pit,” Hawthorne explained, “they should have been planted at ground level with a small retaining wall built around them, the same diameter as the pits, preferably larger, making sure holes are built at the base of the walls to allow excess water to drain off. The walls would even offer a bench for people to sit on while listening to bluegrass music.”

I said, “Isn’t that what we used to have?

Second, Hawthorne maintains that some of the trees around the fountain were not properly planted. Too much dirt was piled over the “root flair,” which Hawthorne maintains can smother and kill them. A tree bought in a nursery, balled or burlapped, has only 15 percent of its required root system: That’s why it’s so important to make sure they are planted correctly. The worst and most common mistake is planting a tree too deep.

It doesn’t seem to be much of a secret — by those knowledgeable in this area — that the design is the problem. In effect, our city’s Parks Department is committing arborcide. The agency has not moved to properly evaluate – and remedy – the situation due to (what can only be attributed to) internal politics, bureaucracy, and a lack (seemingly) of anyone stepping forward to attribute the dead trees to the design.

At the time I met this landscape architect with connections at the Park in August of 2009, I asked him (somewhat naively, it seems), “If it’s known that there’s a problem and the trees will die, wouldn’t someone send a memo to the Parks Commissioner?”

He gave this some thought for a moment; then responded that they could … but they likely won’t. He said no one would step forward to implicate the design and contradict George Vellonakis, the park’s re-designer (who is on staff at the Parks Department), because of the ramifications for doing so within the city agency. The trees, he said, would keep dying until eventually it could no longer be ignored and required acknowledgement that there was an inherent problem. And that is exactly what has been happening. But will it be acknowledged this time?

Such is the dysfunction of this city’s Parks Department. Killing our park’s trees.

Tree #3 officially dead (west)

Part I from Monday July 11th: Why do the Newly Planted Trees Keep Dying Around the Washington Square Fountain?

Photos: Cathryn
Note: The three dead trees, pictured above, are no longer there; they were removed Tuesday morning.

Leave a comment


  1. Dr. Gee

     /  July 20, 2011

    By this time all should realize just how indifferent key DPR offiicials really are. And that includes DPR Capital engineers and planners. DPR states publicly and repeatedly their love and care for our urban trees- they call themselves New Yorks Greenest, they are planting 1-million new trees. Yet one look across at tree inhabited park landscape undergoing reconstruction such as WSP ( and dozens of other past public parks having undergone reconstruction, e.g., East River Promenade, Kissena Park Lake, Martins Field, Dyker, Pelham & Clearview Golf Courses, Cadman Plaza) and the rules on tree protection, preservation and long-term tree stewardship (terms that are plastered all over the DPR website) are simply tossed aside by their engineers. And for what reasons?. Gain and profit for their contractors. They talk the talk, but unable to walk the walk in these circumstances.
    Though the mayoral organism of choice for his PlaNYC, our public tree assets still do not register as vital to the urban infrastructure and we clearly see this spelled out here in WSP. Perhaps many a tree advocate are simply too far ahead of their time.
    As a note on the dead young trees observed in this blog- they were either installed out of season when in full foliation, planted too deep, absent any weekly root ball watering. High likely all three resulting in tree death at cost to the tax-payer. And more tree death events to come.

  2. Hi Dr. Gee,

    Thanks for writing. Everything you say makes sense and thanks for your input. I don’t understand the care (or lack of care) of our city trees by the Parks Department. It baffles me to no end. There are even more dead trees now on the perimeter at WSP – I haven’t even posted photos of those yet.

    It seems the ones around the fountain were planted too deep and perhaps OVERwatered – with not appropriate drainage. Could have been installed out of season too ; I’m not clear on that.

    Thanks for your comment. I’ll be writing more about trees again soon.


  3. Dr Gee

     /  October 24, 2011


    Sorry for such a long gap in this correspondence but it is now October 2011 and I read that even more trees have died, both here and especially at QBP. Quite troubling. And thanks to NBC on reporting on the tree issues here. I suppose one should understand and many now know this to be fact- that when it comes to trees and landscape matters, whether the protection of existing trees during construction projects (and its potential to irreversibly impact trees) or the monitoring and continuing oversight of new tree installations- if the Consulting Arborist is not invited to partner with the design and build team- projects with trees will very likely fail. And so here we have it. The larger trees may take as long as a decade to go into a decline. What is worth exploring is why DPR Capital does not require on their own projects across tree inhabited parklands, such an expert.

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