“Making of a Tree Disaster” at Washington Square Park As NW Lawn is “Restored” – Part II

Updated As reported here previously, according to alarming statements by urban arborists, the trees at Washington Square Park are in danger amidst the currently ongoing “lawn restoration” project.

Washington Square Park Blog reached out to the New York City Parks Department press office for clarification on questions raised after Part I of this series. The agency responded, “The work being done is to improve drainage in the northwest quadrant of the Washington Square Park lawn with new irrigation and grading that provides a more contoured landscape. The Park Administrator George Vellonakis, a landscape architect, is leading the project. William Castro, NYC Parks Borough Commissioner of Manhattan, signed off on the project.”

NYC-based certified Arborist Carsten Glaeser, who previously stated that the way this project is being implemented has “the making of a tree disaster,” told WSP Blog, “It’s not about drainage. Trees take care of drainage on their own if you provide the landscape for them to do so. And the larger the tree in size and age, the greater the tree’s capacity to bioretain stormwater runoff and rainfall intercept – if you let them. What George has done here with his topsoil is diminished the trees’ capacity to do what they have been genetically programmed to do and free of charge.”

Private Money, Public Park

After Washington Square Park Blog reached out to the city Parks Department, new signs, which included the NYC Parks logo, appeared. The NYC Parks Department logo was nowhere in sight on the first version of the signs. Washington Square Park is run by the New York City Parks Department; Washington Square Park conservancy was created, in theory, to raise funds — this is a whole other issue I’ve delved into elsewhere with regards to private money being given access to our public parks, and the problems associated with this — not be given the lead role on projects such as this.

For years, any signs at the park solely reflected the NYC Parks logo — Washington Square Park remains managed and operated by the city Parks Department unlike other neighboring parks such as Bryant Park and Madison Square and Union Square Park. This is partly what makes it so special and is due to community monitoring and oversight.

Washington Square Park private Conservancy was set up solely to raise funds but has been angling, since its “murky” beginnings, to secure more turf and oversight, as this project demonstrates.*

Instead of funds coming from the city budget, we were informed that a private entity, Dalio Philanthropies, “funded the restoration.” That donation went to Washington Square Park Conservancy. Those funds could have just as easily been donated directly to the New York City Parks Department, as would have been the case in the past.

Dalio Philanthropies trumpets “environmental protection” as part of its mission, how does the Dalio family feel about being involved with harming trees which are so important to our environment?

In Part I, I covered the problem with the way this lawn restoration is being done placing the park’s mature trees at risk of dying and declining.

Working “in Partnership”

WSP Blog asked the Parks Department about the agency’s own involvement in this plan since the initially placed signs, as noted, only displayed Washington Square Park Conservancy logo, directing park goers to a page on the private group’s website.

The Parks Department replied that they were much involved, and that:

NYC Parks determined that the lawn restoration work was needed. The Washington Square Park Conservancy worked in partnership with the agency to raise funds for the project. The lawn restoration funds were donated to the Washington Square Park Conservancy in collaboration with NYC Parks.”

Now there is so much collaboration!

Washington Square Park private conservancy statement on its website reads in part:

Thanks to a generous grant from Dalio Philanthropies, the largest lawn in the Park will receive critical repairs. There is a leaking pipe in the middle of the lawn, as well as a depression in the ground, which is causing pooling, flooding and damage. After the pipe is repaired and the lawn is regraded, reseeded, and resodded new ground hydrants and sprinkler heads will be fitted. The lawn will remain closed for 2 months while the new grass seed takes root and new sod knits together.

If any Arborist had been Consulted, they would say: “Absolutely No to the Topsoil Spreading”

Carsten Glaeser:

As Naomi [Zurcher] cited earlier, this is simply mismanagement of the park’s tree asset. Had he [Vellonakis] consulted with a consulting arborist (which he, of course, did not) the arborist’s report would have told him – absolutely no to the topsoil spreading.

George merely wants a rounded berm to plant annuals so it balances the rest of the idiotic berms across the rest of the Park. And it gets rid of the soccer players as well.

You ask is there a better way to do this?

Absolutely but only when all the minds are brought together to the planning table and not just the lead architects.

If the drainage problem is under these trees, it exists because George failed to address the number one known destroyer of urban trees – severe compaction of soil.

Compaction of soils – whether from past Capital projects to tractor mowers to people pressure – can be addressed for the short term and long term if there is a tree management plan, which there is not.

Therein lies the problem.

Controversial Park Administrator and Redesigner as Lead Architect

Regular readers are quite aware of George Vellonakis’s role in the controversial and contentious redesign of Washington Square Park. To think that someone else was not hired to handle this project is a bit curious.

Vellonakis was the redesigner of the park; then many years later hired as Park Administrator working for the city Parks Department and also, again controversially, as Executive Director of Washington Square Park Conservancy (established 2013 under very murky circumstances by four affluent women who misrepresented their intentions in public statements, see links below). These should be two separate positions – if the latter is going to exist at all. It’s clearly a conflict of interest.

We couldn’t help wondering if George Vellonakis was receiving an additional salary for being “lead architect” on this project. But, no, according to the Parks Department press office: “Park Administrator George Vellonakis did not receive additional payment to serve as lead architect on the project. As a landscape architect for NYC Parks, Vellonakis was responsible for designing the three-phase restoration plan of Washington Square Park, completed in June 2014.”

But Mr. Vellonakis continues to want to be all things to Washington Square Park, whether this may harm the park or not, no one – to date – has stopped him.

What Can be Done to Save Washington Square Park’s Trees?

Emerald Tree Co Instagram

When asked what could be done now to help the trees, Glaeser stated:

“The current remediative measure used by arborists to reduce the harmful affects of compacted soils to long term tree health (whether from everyday trampling by people or by heavy equipment and machinery) is the use of a supersonic pneumatic air tool known as the Airspade.The Airspade tools fractures compacted soils so that roots are able to breathe and rainwater is able to drain and percolate onto the soils. Most times root growth biostimulants are added with heavy beneficial irrigation followed by a layer of mulch around the root zone.”

In fact, Emerald Tree & Shrub Care, which was in charge in of the maintenance and pruning of Washington Square Park’s 270 trees in 2017, recently posted on their Instagram writing, “What’s going on under your tree is just as important as what’s going on above. Sometimes we need to airspade the root zone to diagnose and fix a tree’s ailment such as strangled roots, nutrient deficient soil, compacted soil, etc.”

Glaeser added, “The decompaction process is not intended to fully reverse that greater construction consequences to overall tree health but can aid in the recovery from the tree stresses caused by it. George’s training as an architect doesn’t venture beyond looking at a landscape and what you can do with that landscape with adding furnishings, benches, pretty flowers, play equipment. It’s not about the trees.”

This doesn’t seem a difficult premise for even non-arborists to grasp, one would hope a landscape architect could.

So, how do we make it about the trees?

* Community Board 2 was supposed to be monitoring this private conservancy but sadly many on the Board and its Parks Committee do not understand the issues.

This is how the signs always looked for over 10 years, if not more, at Washington Square Park:

NYC Parks ONLY Signage April 2013

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Previously at Washington Square Park Blog:

Will Current Lawn Restoration Project be the Death of Washington Square Park’s Trees? – Part I August 12, 2019

Park Re-designer George Vellonakis Appointed New Washington Square Administrator May 15, 2017

Private Conservancy Watch

Documentation: What was Concealed in Public Statements by Washington Square Park Private Conservancy Founders

Photos: Cathryn

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