Two Stories on Washington Square’s Dying Trees Around the Fountain

Updated —

DNAinfo covers the dying trees around the Fountain and has the city’s response (and mine!) with this story: City Getting to Root of Washington Square Park Tree Deaths (August 25, 2011)

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Local Ecologist Blog notes how the latest tree is dying and researches what this signifies:

Strolling through the park yesterday morning I was struck by the bronze foliage of one of the remaining Zelkovas (Zelkova serrata, Japanese zelkova; Ulmaceae (elm family)) around the fountain. Bronze is a color typical of fall foliage; this tree is not exhibiting the dark green typical of summer.

The bronze (brown) color indicates leaf scorch. The entire canopy appears scorched.* Also, there is some dieback in the center of the canopy. What are the causes of scorch? From The Ohio State University “Disease Control in the Landscape” (Bulletin 614):

These diseases commonly result from winter damage as well as from poor root function coupled with high temperatures and moisture shortage. In some cases, bacterial infection of the plant is involved. Scorched leaves are brown around the edges and sometimes between the veins. Leaf yellowing and wilting may occur in late summer. Dieback and decline is often mistaken for Verticillium wilt. No wood streaking is present, however. Girdling roots may also cause these symptoms.

When I looked into the tree well I noticed that someone (or an animal) had dug near the trunk and at the edge of the basin. Looking into the cleared soil next to the trunk I did not see the root flare. Planting a tree so that its root flare is at the soil surface is important — for gas exchange, disease control, and to prevent girdling roots.

Read more at A bronze Zelkova in August.

See WSP Blog coverage posts on the dying trees.

How to Prevent Additional Trees at Washington Square Park from Dying? — Questions Abound

Updated 1:15 p.m.Why are so many trees at Washington Square Park dying? In addition to those perpetually dying around the Washington Square Fountain (8 thus far in 2 years), numerous trees are dying along the perimeter and inside the park. Since there are so many, I’ve documented them with a photo montage. Note: Many of these dead trees were cleared on Friday.

Questions abound — What is the problem here? Are the tree deaths occurring from the construction from Redesign Phase I and II (as many predicted; in fact people in the community went to court over this matter to attempt to stop this)? Were – and are – the trees not properly protected? Are the trees not properly maintained? (Is it Parks Department karma?) How can we save Washington Square Park’s trees?

wash sq north

wash sq south (by kimmel center)

Inside park - Northern end

"The Hills are Alive" trees Eastern end

wash square west

Inside park - SW construction area

SW dead trees inside park (construction area)

wash square south (tree behind this one died also)

Trees Removed Friday

Dead Tree Uprooted

South sidewalk now

Southwestern corner now

Behind SW Construction fence -- These two trees are left (one of them now is also clearly dying)

For some insight into the cause of the problems, see most illuminating comment left here.

How Many Trees Around the Washington Square Fountain Must Die Before Suffocating Design is Corrected?

With all the talk about “MillionTreesNYC” in our city, as one blogger wrote, it’s really “OneMillionDeadTrees”. Another p.r. ruse put forth by our Mayor — the plan lacks any built-in initiative to maintain the “million” trees planted on neighborhood streets.

For the perpetually dying trees that line the Washington Square Park Fountain, it’s a bit more complex. It’s known that the design is killing these trees, and yet no one will speak up within the Parks Department as the designer of the park is greatly protected within the city agency. Community Board 2 will not address it (the Parks Committee of the Community Board is chaired by a former Parks Dept staffer whose job now is dependent on the Hudson River Trust, which is tied to the Parks Department) and local Council Member Margaret Chin is hands off.

How many more trees lining the famous Washington Square fountain have to die?

Source of the problem: the tree 'pit'

For a few months up until July, there were three dead trees lining the fountain (of eight total). Two of those locations had trees replanted and died three times in succession.

Now those locations are vacant, likely awaiting a fourth try by the Parks Department at getting these trees to miraculously live. There is no way they can live unless the design itself is changed. Experts in landscape and construction will support this.

Of course, it must again be noted that these young trees took the place of healthy, living, old trees that had been there over 40 years, chopped down as they were inconveniently in the way of the Bloomberg Administration’s plan to relocate the fountain 22 feet east to align with the Arch.

A professional pointed out to me yesterday that it is no coincidence that this tree south of the Arch died immediately after the heavy rain fall. There is no proper drainage for those trees within those tree pits (also connected to the use of the structural soil I was originally informed), based on George Vellonakis’s design, so that last tremendously heavy rainstorm, the water could not drain, sending the tree cascading to its death basically drowning.

When I mentioned the improper drainage to Mr. Vellonakis back in December 2009 at a Washington Square Park Task Force meeting (note: those Task Force meetings have since ceased), he looked at me incredulously and with a bit of disdain and said “there is no drainage problem.”

Well, there is and there always was.

Eighth Tree In Two Years Now Dying Around the Fountain

Taken Yesterday -- New Dead Tree by the Arch

I’ve previously reported on the young trees dying repeatedly around the Washington Square Fountain, this tree (pictured above) now makes tree #8. Over the last two years, trees have been replaced by the Parks Department and died 3x in two locations around the fountain; a new arborcidal incident occurred on the western side just recently. Now this — the fourth location lining the fountain to exhibit a dead tree.

These events were forecast by a landscape architect I encountered back in August of 2009 who predicted ALL the trees around the fountain would likely die and attributed this to the design.

These young (now dead) trees replaced perfectly healthy living trees which were 40+ years old, axed because they got in the way of the Bloomberg Administration’s plan to move the famous fountain 22 feet east to align with the Arch at Fifth Avenue.

The reality is that these aren’t the only dead trees dying at Washington Square Park. North, South, East, West, Perimeter, Within – trees are dying all over at the park. (Photos to come.)

What can be done to stop the New York City Parks Department from committing this arborcide?

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One place to contact: City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s office — Allie Nudelman; liaison to Community Board 2 District – direct phone # 212/564-7757

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Previously at WSP Blog:

July 11, 2011: Why do the Newly Planted Trees Around the Washington Square Fountain Keep Dying?

July 15, 2011: Arborcidal Design for Fountain Trees — Will City’s Parks Department Address This at Last?

December 10,2009: Two of Seven Newly Planted Trees that Line the Fountain have died — Is the cause the design?

Photo: Cathryn

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.

Part I: Why Do the Newly Planted Trees Around the Washington Square Fountain Keep Dying?

Two dead trees line fountain (third not pictured)

Updated — Everyone is asking: “What’s up with the dead trees around the Fountain?” Currently, three of 8 trees that line the Fountain Plaza are dead. Two of these, in new locations via the Park’s Phase I redesign, have been replanted and died THREE TIMES since 2009.

As part of the park’s redesign, seven healthy, thriving trees — which had survived around the Fountain for some 40+ years — were axed in 2008.

In 2009, seven young trees were planted in new locations lining the Fountain once it was moved 22 feet east to align with the Arch. Two of those newly planted trees, located on the east and north side, died later that year. I wrote about this the first time two of the trees died. They were replaced; died again in 2010, were replaced; and now both have again died just recently in 2011. The third dead tree on the western side of the Fountain is a new occurrence.

That makes 7 new trees over two years that have been planted and replanted around the Fountain and have all died. You’d think – this is the Parks Department in New York City – this could be figured out, no? There is a problem with the design and yet the Parks Department is either in denial or won’t acknowledge there is a problem and send someone in to fix it.

As for the seven previous trees that lined the fountain for 40+ years — some were destroyed to make way for the Fountain’s move to align with the Arch; others were chopped allegedly to allow the entire Fountain Plaza to be reconstructed. The only reason reconstructing the entire Plaza was necessary was likely because they had to reorient the water lines underground for the new location of the Fountain.

If plans were created that accommodated and respected living trees, those old trees, which provided life and shade for the park, would still be here and I would not be reporting this arborcide – yet again.

Part II: coming Tuesday Friday.

Photo: Cathryn

Washington Square Fragrant Linden Tree in Full Bloom in Eastern Quadrant

The fragrant Linden Tree

If you walk from the fountain east, at the intersection where a fork occurs in the road and the pathway veers south, there is a huge Linden tree. Right now, it’s flowering and the flowers emit the most beautiful smell. The flowers don’t last that long so check it out soon.

I was walking by and looking around for where the fragrance was coming from and then looked up and realized that tree is a Linden tree. I don’t know if there is more than one Linden tree in the park.

More on Linden Trees (genus: Tilia) from Wikipedia:

On healing: The flowers are used for herbal tea and tinctures; this kind of use is particularly popular in Europe and also used in North American herbal medicine practices.

In Germanic mythology: Originally, local communities assembled not only to celebrate and dance under a Tilia tree, but to hold their judicial thing (governing assembly) meetings there in order to restore justice and peace. It was believed that the tree would help unearth the truth.

Falling Trees at WSP

NYC had a bit of a storm Thursday evening and this tree along the park’s perimeter at Washington Square North came down. It’s still there as of today, Monday. Not sure what the timing of tree removal – or tree trimming – is for the City’s Parks Department. Many trees at the park need some attention. At Central Park, there have been serious tragedies due to trees not being properly attended to.

Fallen Tree, Washington Square North

Caution

NYC Parks Department Drops off Washington Square Park Phase II Blueprints at Community Board 2 Meeting; More Arborcide at Washington Square Park and by NYU

Well, yes, Community Board 2’s Parks Committee met Wednesday night, February 3rd, in the Village with a list of topics to discuss. On the agenda: Design of the Washington Square Park “comfort stations,” part of Washington Square Park Redesign: Phase III which will begin later this year or early next. There was, at last, a look at the plans for WSP Phase II construction, currently underway.

The Parks Department unveiled full Washington Square Park Phase II redesign plan blueprints, the first time anyone from the community had seen these despite the fact that the work began in the Fall of 2009. Clearly, these Phase II blueprints have existed for awhile — the fact that the Parks Department just now got around to bringing them before the Community Board is particularly vexing.

At the previous December meeting (a joint meeting of CB2 Parks Committee with the Washington Square Park Task Force), the Parks Department was unprepared and attendees were told that representatives would return at February’s meeting to give the Community Board full and final details on ongoing Phase II construction and design plans for Phase III.

Instead, the Parks Department dropped off some blueprints (which were nice to finally see, of course), placed them on a table and focused on presentations related to other parks.

No information was presented about the design of the Washington Square Park comfort stations/restrooms. (You might recall that the Greenwich Village community repeatedly insisted over the last five or so years that WSP’s failing rest rooms be addressed first in their redesign plans to which the New York City Parks Department smiled and nodded their heads while ignoring this request all along the way.)

At the meeting, other village neighborhood parks got the spotlight, including Bleecker Street Playground, Petrosino Park, and Minetta Playground. I miss the presence of Community Board 2 Chair Brad Hoylman (who left his position at the beginning of this year after a 2 year term).

With Hoylman there, the spotlight shone a bit brighter on WSP – and park – issues. CB2 Parks Committee Chair Tobi Bergman, previously a Parks Department employee, is more likely to dismiss items when they might get a bit thorny, not holding the Parks Department accountable. I can’t say for certain that Hoylman, who works for Partnership for New York City (a pro-Bloomberg, pro-development entity), increased the Parks Department’s responsiveness but the process felt more open.

Arborcide by NYU and at WSP

For example: NYU devastatingly chopped down 6 trees along Thompson Street between Washington Square South and West 3rd Street recently during construction of their new Interfaith center at 58 Washington Square South. Their reason: to install an intricate heating system. Clearly, the design could have been configured otherwise.

In December, Bergman took a strong stand, with the rest of the board’s committee, when NYU officials came before them with these plans. The Parks Committee disapproved of this arborcidal concept and instructed NYU to find a new way to proceed. Yet, it was revealed on Wednesday that the Parks Department went ahead and gave the University the jurisdiction to send the trees to the chopping block.

Trees now gone. To those who objected when this news was brought to light, Bergman told them, quickly shutting down any discussion: it was done, yes, we objected, move on.

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg says he is in favor of a MillionTrees, there may be some planting going on, but it seems for every one tree planted, another is axed. (See Union Square and Yankee Stadium Parkland, as well as Washington Square Park14 trees axed in Phase I, unclear # in Phase II to be destroyed.)

Another example: the two magnificent, non-uniform, non-aligned trees that graced the path from Garibaldi Statue alongside Teen Plaza to LaGuardia Place at WSP. I’m not certain the type tree they were but they had character, were clearly very old, and their branches drooped at bizarre angles, infusing immediate charm and an eclectic feeling.

When landscape designer George Vellonakis walked me through a tour of his plans for Phase II in May 2009, I asked specifically about those trees. As he had stated previously in public, he confirmed to me that those trees would remain. But, like most everything that shows a bit of non-conformity at the Park, as I walked through Wednesday night, I noted those trees are gone.

Parks Department Given Way Too Much Latitude

In the end, there was no presentation from the Parks Department on WSP. Bergman was vague about when they would return (March was fleetingly mentioned) and didn’t seem to recall the stated agenda items from December slated to be readdressed at this meeting.

It wouldn’t be hard for the city agency to detect that Bergman is quick to forgive – or more pointedly ignore –  failings on their part. He’s very adept at pointing out that CB2 role is advisory, instead of forging a more activist and assertive front. I’m not certain why, when the CB2 Chair was rotated at the beginning of this year, new committee chairpersons were not put into play.

Blueprints Dropped Off: Washington Square Park Phase II

The Parks Department dropped off diagrams displaying Washington Square Park Phase II which were placed on a table for viewing.

Evident from the plans:

*There will be 19 chess tables. I can’t recall the previous number (does anyone offhand?) but it looked like an increase although the Parks Department had initially said the number would remain the same. That SW corner becomes reduced in size – becoming another conformed, aligned “Plaza,” like the other three that grace the corners of the Park’s quadrants.

*Nine NYPD security cameras and devices, four within the Park, installed on poles. “2 cameras will be installed on new poles that currently do not have security devices installed.” I gather the other five will be along the perimeter of the Park.

*As we knew, four of the six seating alcoves will be preserved. Three are supposed to remain as they were, one reduced in size.

*As previously outlined, the two dog runs will be relocated along Washington Square South. (Designer Vellonakis previously has stated that no trees would be disturbed there. We’ll see…)

*Garibaldi is being moved from his position facing West to a position a bit further North, facing South.

As for Phase III design plans, it seems that they will be unveiled by the Parks Department at the Parks Committee meeting in March – at least that’s what was implied. Whether the Parks Department will keep to their word, we shall see. We’ll also see whether Community Board 2’s Parks Committee holds them to it.

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For a look at the Phase II diagrams and a report about the meeting from Curbed, go here.

My previous WSP Blog post on Phase II plans.

Two of Seven Newly Planted Trees Surrounding the Washington Square Park Fountain Have Died — Is the Cause the Design? + WSP Task Force Meeting Update

Dying Tree Lining Fountain, Since Removed

Last week’s meeting of Washington Square Park Task Force/Community Board 2 Parks Committee on December 2nd provided minimal new information about Phase II (currently in progress) and Phase III of the Park’s redesign.

Another meeting of the WSP Task Force is scheduled for February 2010 at which the NYC Parks Department will be prepared to present information on Phases II and III since they admitted they were not equipped to do so at the December 2nd meeting.

[Update: This meeting did not happen; it was the infamous meeting where the blueprints for Phase II were dropped off on a table with no discussion. It was a CB2 Parks Committee meeting; the Task force did not meet.]

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 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.

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.

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