Thursday, April 12, 2012

Queens Borough Hall Atrium Project Put On Hold Over Cherry Tree Concerns

One Million Trees Minus Nine. Workers loaded heathy cherry trees into a wood chipper behind Queens Borough Hall last Tuesday. The trees were in full bloom when they were cut down a few days earlier to make way for an upcoming $ 17 million dollar construction project. $1.3 million was spent on design. (Photos: Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates) Click on image to enlarge.

An independent arborist who randomly inspected several adjacent flowering cherry trees at Queens Borough Hall noted they were invariably healthy with some pathogens, though not detrimental to overall tree health.


By Geoffrey Croft

The atrium at Queens Borough Hall has been put "on hold" until an arborist report on the existing trees can be completed according to the Queens Borough President's office.

After the controversial news broke last week that the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) had destroyed at least nine seemingly healthy cherry trees the Queens Borough President's office requested that the atrium portion of the project be halted.

Officials from DCAS and the Queens Borough Hall met two days after the controversy came to light last week to discuss the issues and had a "frank and productive" meeting.

"The project is effectively stopped," said Dan Andrews, a spokesman for Borough President Helen Marshall said last Thursday, "We met with DCAS and asked them to do a study of the remaining trees in the back."

"We are waiting for the study. "

After the Destruction.

On Thursday DCAS officials walked the site with an arborist who was evaluating the trees.

Mr. Andrews said ancillary work would continue at the site until the arborist report is completed and decisions on what to do with the remaining trees can be properly addressed. This work includes creating an alternative exit for people getting married.

Last week Bloomberg's City Hall press office was anxious to get the word out that no stop work order had been issued on the project.

Numerous questions have been raised after the issue came to light. After initial media reports said the reason the trees were destroyed was because contractors needed to use the location as a staging area, DCAS went on the record to numerous media to say they were removed for health reasons.

After being questioned late last week however DCAS backed off stating now that only, "some" of the trees had fungal and bacterial diseases.

DCAS took the "shortest, quickest, easiest, and cheapest way to the site," Mr. Andrews said.

"We relied on their tree assessment. It was predicted that Helen was going to get blamed for taking down the trees," he added.

Questions have also been raised whether proper procedures were followed that allowed the destruction of the trees.

This incident has one again called to attention the critical need to address tree and landscape concerns within city infrastructure projects inhabited by irreplaceable trees critics say. They assert that effective tree and landscape protection protocols are readily available but are being ignored and excluded on these types of projects across the city with little accountability.

"If only the designers and planners of client agencies like DCAS, had an epiphany that projects can be successful without having to needlessly remove trees," said an independent arborist who requested anonymity.

The Blame Game

Under the Mayoral PlaNYC 2030 green and sustainable agenda several City agencies have developed infrastructure development guidelines that address methods and procedures for managing landscapes inhabited by trees during design and construction. NYC DDC has a manual on sustainable infrastructure development as does NYC DPR with their 2011 release of the High Performance Landscape Guidelines. The HPLG document serves as a template.

DCAS claimed the reason the trees were destroyed was due to disease.

By current arboricultural standards and protocol the DCAS project manager could have relied on a tree health report either performed by an in-house certified arborist or by an independent consultant arborist. The arborist report would have included the findings of a diagnostic laboratory analysis of a tree wood samples with assumed fungal pathogens and bacterial disease. And the arborist would then have fully assessed the magnitude of the plant disease, possible treatments, woody decay as well as tree related public safety concerns, that may have justified tree removal.

According to experts, most of our urban trees have disease pathogens and even pests, but that doesn't merit immediate tree removal. Overall sound tree health and vigor is an indicator of the how advanced the plant disease may be. What prompts tree removal is whether that disease is so advanced to have lead to advanced wood decay and loss of wood integrity, whereby public safety would be at risk.

Advance disease pathogens (such as canker) could have resulted in advanced wood decay within the trunk and branches. These were not evident in the pile of cut branches or through out the remaining trunk viewed last week at the site. The remaining adjacent flowering cherries at Queens Borough Hall are variably healthy with some disease, though not detrimental to overall tree health nor a matter for public safety. These trees though have received some marginal care by pruning, but by an unknown gardener or arborist.

DCAS was asked to provide information that shows the fungal and bacterial growth had posed an immediate heath threat to the trees and an assessment of life expectancy that necessitated their removal. They were also asked if the Borough Hall design plan involved the services of either an in-house Arborist or independent Consulting Arborist to address tree & landscape matters including assessing the health and conditions.

DCAS was unable to provide documentation addressing these issues.

After being questioned last week DCAS appeared to back off the health issue saying now that only, "some of the trees had fungal and bacterial diseases."

"The Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) is overseeing this project at the request of the Queens Borough President’s office," DCAS spokesperson Julianne Cho wrote in an email.

"The landscaping portion, which was required by the Public Design Commission, was designed by the landscape architecture firm of Abel, Bainston and Butz, and was subsequently approved by the PDC. Requests for copies of the master plan should be made through the Queens Borough President’s office.

As part of the project preparation, an arborist from the firm visited the site in 2009 and found that some of the trees had fungal and bacterial diseases. Another landscape architect confirmed that assessment in 2012. "

The spokesperson said the project should be completed in 2014.

Abel Bainston and Butz LLP was asked if they ever produced a tree health and condition assessment report by a certified arborist. And if so, did this report justify and or suggest the removals. They were also asked if they ever represented to DCAS or any other government agency that any disease found on the existing trees, including fungal and bacterial growth posed an immediate heath threat to the trees, and if they did, was an assessment of the life expectancy and concern for public safety of said trees done, which necessitated their removal.

Despite repeated attempts, Abel, Bainston, and Butz did not respond to requests for comment. A message left for Terri -Lee Burger, RLA, a principle in the firm was also not returned. On one occasion an employee who answered the phone said I should call DCAS.

RGR Landscape, the New York City-based landscape design firm was listed on the design plan drawings.

A company representative said they were informed of the cherry tree issue by the project's architect but they had no involvement with the destruction.

"We prepared the construction drawings," said Sid Burke of RGR Landscape.

Mr. Burke said they did not produce a tree health assessment report from an arborist.

"Whether or not one was done I'm not certain. That physical area was outside the scope of our work."

He suggested I contact DCAS.

Queens Borough Hall spokesperson Dan Andrews said they found out several months ago that they couldn't get a bull dozer, a crane and other construction material in without removing the trees. He said it was "really a shock" when they found out" the trees had be removed. "We were pretty upset."

He said they were notified via email that the trees were diseased and both fungal and bacterial growth were detected.

"They told us the trees were deceased and that they were too close together and pruning wouldn't help. Based on the email we received, that's what we relied on. We took them for their word, we're not tree experts. We relied on DCAS. Helen did not check the trees herself. We didn't even ask what the deceases were at the time.

"We did operate on what we were told," he continued. "We assumed what they said was accurate, we did not contest it. We didn't go out there with hard hats. This is not Helen's building it belongs to DCAS.

We regret the loss of the trees," he said.

Mr. Andrews said part of the plan includes planting new trees and improving existing drainage.

Critics point out that when the public raises objections to destroying trees administration officials time and time again attempt to muddy the issue by falling back on the tried and true 'we are planting new trees,' as justification.

"You can't replace a 30 inch caliber tree," a licensed landscape professional said, tired of the spin.

Downed Cherry Trees. A number of concerns have also been raised regarding the protection of the root systems of a number of large mature Oak trees - like this one above - that are within the footprint of the construction project.

Critics have long complained that the wide spreading root systems of trees are often damaged during construction projects and are not being adequately protected. This results in the health of trees being severely compromised and often results in death.

Funds must be allocated to protect the existing large trees with the best and fullest protection protocols which enforcement. Should soils be compacted during the operation that trees should obtain soil remediation at the end of the project.

More Trees Are Going - Possible Delays?

Last week the Queens BP's office confirmed that a number of additional trees located in the courtyard and along the perimeter will also need to be removed according to the plans.

The office has has raised the issue of transplanting the trees instead of destroying them and are looking for locations they can removed to.

"One way or another they can't stay there," said Dan Andrews. "We gotta figure something out. We are looking at ways to save those trees."

According to experts though it's not that easy. There are a number of criteria needed to ensure a successful transplant. Transplanting can only be done when trees are dormant, either late fall or early spring. Transplanting is very costly especially with necessary long-term follow up care needed for the trees to successfully establish themselves. The city typically performs these transplants without the necessary follow up (irrigation, care and maintenance) that too often results in the trees eventually dying. Transplanting is a nice gesture but without the proper follow up protocol and oversight for maintaining the trees during a period of establishment, their chances of long-term survival are unlikely.
Under a Tree & Landscape Management Plan:

I. Transplanting trees with full consideration for their success.

A. Project designers and planner to consider tree transplant:

• The Consulting Arborist to evaluate tree condition, size and/or worthiness for transplantability
Consideration of overall transplant costs.
Consider tree transplant success for approved new transplant location(s).
Consideration on long-term follow up watering and care mandatory at each the new transplant location.
Transplanting is a seasonal operation to occur only when trees are dormant.
Large established trees require planning one calendar year in advance for necessary tree root pruning strategy that reduces and minimizes transplant shock.

B. Transplanting of Trees:
Small trees (2-in caliper) transplant the best and the easiest.
• Transplanting by hand digging and ball and burlap method.
• For larger established trees (4 - 8-in caliper or greater) requires planning far in advance with consideration of new transplant site conditions, treatment and and long term aftercare.

Our trees are invaluable public assets. They are part of our only natural resource, the city's living infrastructure. For the long-term health and vitality of the City’s urban forest and street trees a full public review process (at the very least a reporting mechanism) needs to be established for major decisions by designers, planners and engineers who pursue the removal of the public tree asset within the public right of way.

Read More:

Queens Chronicle - April 5, 2012 - By Michael Gannon

Marshall: Chopped Cherry Trees Diseased
Queens Tribune - April 5, 2012 - By Domenick Rafter

New York Daily News - April 3, 2012 - Lisa L. Colangelo

Walk In the Park - April 3, 2012

My Fox - April 2, 2012 - By Linda Schmidt

WPIX - April 2, 2012 - By Narmeen Choudhury

Metro NY - April 2, 2012 - Alison Bowen

A Walk In The Park - April 1, 2012 - By Geoffrey Croft

1 comment:

  1. This tree disease matter is very inaccurate. Trees in NYC are not simply cut down b/c they have disease, bacteria or even evidence of fungal decay. There are scores of public trees across this City afflicted with disease pathogens, bacteria and most of those trees are not removed b/c of health issues associated by them. If every tree that was diagnosed with disease, bacteria (and even decay) had to be removed because of it, had we wouldn't have much of an urban forest left.

    Take for example the ubiquitous London Planetrees (LP) that occupy much of the urban forest as street trees, parkland trees, cemeteries and other City properties. The LP is afflicted during the growing season with a number of pest and disease problems. The LP has a terrible pathogen called anthracnose that infects both foliage and woody tissue. The LP is also afflicted with other foliage diseases such powdery mildew and bacterial leaf scorch. This is not to mention the LP's affinity for being attacked by fungal canker, as these cherries do. There are also leaf pests like lacebug and scale and not to forget the American plum wood borer. Yet the LP are not removed b/c of the symptoms of pests and disease pathogens. Trees are removed when diagnosed to structurally weak wooded and have become a risk to life and/or property.