SPS says removals were for resident safety
By Sabina Mollot
Though it did come with warning, a number of Stuyvesant Town residents were nonetheless unprepared for the moment when trees that were nearly as old and as tall as nearby buildings began getting sawed down and carted away.
The old oaks’ removal was explained by management in an email on Friday (and in a prior email blast) as being necessary due to disease and decay. Additionally, StuyTown Property Services CEO Rick Hayduk added in the Friday email to tenants, they’d be replaced in June by Princeton elms and the remains of the oaks would be mulched. Still, for some residents whose windows overlook Playground 1, the removal of the 18 mature trees around it hit home as hard as the loss of an old friend.
“As I speak I hear a chainsaw cutting down a 70-year-old tree,” Stuart Strong, a resident of 330 First Avenue told Town & Village on Friday. Strong, who was horrified, added, “They’re sturdy as anything. We’re looking at stumps that used to be oak trees. I don’t see any decay. They provide environment and enjoyment.”
Strong added that he thought it seemed odd that every single one of the trees had to be removed at the same time prior to the renovation of Playground 1. The playground, currently home to a barely used shovelboard court, is going to be transformed into a sleek-looking sports playground. “They don’t all deteriorate at once,” Strong said.
Town & Village relayed his concerns to Hayduk, who, along with other management employees, have also been hearing from residents asking if the removals were truly necessary.
In response, Hayduk said they absolutely were because the trees in that area were all in advanced stages of decline. Additionally, said Hayduk, at least one tree by the playground was deemed an immediate falling hazard by the property’s master arborist. A few of the others, he said, might have survived another five years or so, but are being removed as a precaution.
Since there are many other trees that are around the same age as the ones near Playground 1, Hayduk added that management has already begun the process of checking on all the trees, and two have already been removed elsewhere due to decay.
Wesley Richards, director of horticulture and landscape services on the property, explained that with all the trees around the playground, the risk outweighed the rewards of prolonging the inevitable.
“Look what happened in Central Park last year,” he said, in reference to an incident where a tree fell on a woman and her three children, leaving them all injured. “The tree appeared to be beautiful and healthy.”
He added that part of the problem was the soil in the playground area. Poor soil compaction makes the soil “kind of like a wall,” which makes it hard for the roots to absorb water and nutrients. “It’s not bad soil, but it’s not optimal for growth,” said Richards.
When the trees get replaced, new soil will also be introduced that meets specs of the Parks Department for new plantings.
Another issue was the age of the trees, since the life expectancy of an urban tree is 32 to 70 years. “They weren’t past their prime, but they were reaching that age,” said Richards. Many of the oaks as well as London planes in the complex were part of the original planting in the late 1940s.
With the trees surrounding Playground 1, a sign that they were in decline was that their crowns were sparse due to a lack of secondary branches that would normally extend from the larger branches where there would normally be many leaves. Another sign was that the trees weren’t recovering well after dead or dying branches had been removed, Richards said. He added that no other area in the complex appears to be as bad as around Playground 1.
The Princeton elms that will replace the oaks are generally more tolerant to conditions like poor soil and drought. When planted, they’ll be 22-24 feet each and are expected to grow 4-6 feet a year. In their lifespans, they can grow as big as 60-100 feet with trunks that are 2-4 feet wide and have a wide canopy for shade. Richards said he believes they’ll hold up well even in Playground 1, which gets a lot of sun and the cobblestones that have surrounded the trees can also get quite hot. While they aren’t acorn producers, the trees do produce a seed called samara in the spring, which is a food source to wildlife, including squirrels. There are already 24 of these elms around the Oval overlooking the crescent flower beds.
SPS has said the replacement of the trees will be accompanied by re-laying of the uneven cobblestones around the playground and rebuilding the leaning, collapsing parapet wall. The project is estimated to take four months with an expected completion in late July. There will also be temporary shaded sitting areas created between 410 and 430 East 20th Street with benches temporarily placed on the south side of the playground.
The work to remove the oaks began last Wednesday. By Friday at noon, six trees had already been chopped down to stumps. The path lining the south end of the playground was taped off as workers were onsite. Meanwhile, vehicles carrying downed limbs and parts of trunks rumbled back and forth as a few curious onlookers strolled by while walking their dogs.
One neighbor, Barbara Caporale, slammed the tree cutting as “a horror.”
She told T&V, “I sat on the cut long pieces and I really could feel the energy of decades of kids and their parents and friends learning to ride a bike, scooter, skateboard, pogo stick, toss hit a ball, playing tag, blowing bubbles.”
Another resident of a nearby apartment, Carole Delgado, told T&V, “It’s a great loss removing these trees that provide beauty, shade and habitat for residents, birds and squirrels, the one thing that added yin to these overly yang buildings.”
She added that she appreciated the trees particularly in May when there would be an “annual, audible return of the night birds.”
Another resident and parks advocate, Michael Alcamo, said, “It’s very sad to see this entire canopy destroyed. I hope management will be more restrained in the future.”
But while sitting by the playground with his dog, Stuy Town resident Bill Oddo seemed more accepting of the trees’ fate. He said he’d heard they were diseased, but hoped their wood could still be repurposed and made into furniture like conference tables. Oddo figured at the length some of the logs were being cut, they could still be suitable for further use, so he passed on his suggestions to management.
Management has said it understands residents’ attachments to the oaks.
“They hold those trees dear to their hearts and it can be difficult,” said Richards. He added, “We’ve heard the concerns of the tenants and once we have a conversation they tend to understand and feel better about it.”