New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



Easy as One, Two, Tree

If you think that you shall never see a poem lovely as a tree, well, you’re right. Poems are great, but can they clean the air and buffer street noise? Give you shade? Help conquer the desert and create livable space?

If a tree can do all that, imagine what planting one or two in front of your building can do.

“Studies show that greenery in residential environments can improve property values,” says Clemson University horticulture professor Dr. Judith Calbwell. “Trees can establish a sense of place, distinguishing your neighborhood from another neighborhood. They’re associated with an upscale quality of life. Where there are urban trees, people are more inclined to gather outside and interact with each other, and that plays into making friends, feeling more connected, building community.”

Clearly, urban trees aren’t just great – they’re tree-mendous. Who doesn’t love living on a leafy lane? And while maintaining a sidewalk tree takes a nominal but necessary amount of effort in its sapling days, the New York City Parks Department makes the actual getting of a tree easy for property owners, be they individuals, co-ops, or condos.

They don’t make it happen quickly, however – fulfilling a tree request can take up to two years if the city does it (for free) and maybe six months to do it on your own with city permission. Either way, how does a board go about getting a lot of bark for the buck?

There are two main avenues for getting a tree on your avenue or street. The avenue of least resistance is to get a free tree from the city. The property owner prints out a form, available online (see box, p. 50), giving contact information, the proposed location, and other basic facts. That gets mailed to the building’s local Community Board, which twice a year submits requests to the Parks Department. You can also fill out and submit an online form electronically.

The other method, which costs some money but works more quickly and gives you more control, is to get a free permit from your Borough Forestry Office – betcha didn’t know you had one – and do a private planting, using your choice of city-approved landscape contractors. If there’s not already a tree pit in the spot you want – left over, perhaps, from some long-gone bit of arbor – you’ll also need a permit from the Department of Transportation (DOT). That costs $135, and you must remove the concrete and dig the pit at your own expense, following DOT guidelines.

Carol Cocozzella went the first route when her roughly 50-unit co-op at 140 Claremont Avenue, in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights, sought two trees from the Parks Department. A former board president when she spearheaded the effort in 2001, she recalls that “there was absolutely no debate. Someone mentioned we might want a tree since the front of the building was so bare-looking,” and the board agreed – in principle, at least. After awhile and awhile…and awhile, “finally somebody [told] me, ‘Well, start the process and then the board will do what it needs to do.’”

Cocozzella filled out the form, had it signed by the board president, and sent it to Community Board 8. “They were extremely kind and helpful,” she says. “I did have to stay on top of it with the Parks Department,” she notes, but the co-op did gets its two trees planted after only about 15 months.

Unfortunately, one died within a year. Though forest trees can live hundreds of years, city trees average thirty-two and inner-city trees just seven, so this quick death was unusual. “Getting it replaced took probably another two years,” says Cocozzella. “That tree,” she adds happily, “is surviving now.”

The Manhasset, a 120-unit, block-long co-op at 300 West 108th and 300 West 109th Streets in Manhattan, went the do-it-yourself route a couple of years ago. The board president at the time, Joanne L. Sliker, is an associate at the prestigious Polshek Partnership architectural firm. “You don’t need to have a professional do it for you,” she says, modestly, of the process. But if you have someone on your board who is, it can’t hurt, either.

“It took six months from the time we submitted the application,” Sliker says. The steps include a Parks Department inspector making an on-site visit and giving on-the-spot approval if there are no preempting conditions, such as street signs, underground utilities, low wires, building entrances, light posts, and the like. On some streets, depending on traffic patterns, a tree can’t be too close to a corner where it might obstruct turning vehicles.

Once you’re approved, says Sliker, “you prepare bid documents, bid it – we sent documents to six [city-approved] landscape contractors; you want to get at least three bids – and select the contractor, who purchases the tree, cuts out [a tree pit from the] concrete, removes the soil and puts in structural soil” – which, unlike the highly compacted soil that cities employ to meet pavement load-bearing requirements is, among other things, looser. That makes it easier for your tree’s all-important root system to grow and get adequate water, nutrients, and oxygen. “Then he plants the tree, and in our case followed up with the fabrication of a pit guard” – those metal barriers you see ringing tree pits to help prevent vehicle damage and to discourage dogs, whose waste can contain harmful parasites and pathogens.

“If you’re not willing to pay for tree guards,” warns 140 Claremont’s Cocozzella, “it’s not worth the process. To not have a tree guard, you’ve wasted your time. A car rammed into one of our metal guards,” she says by way of example. “If we hadn’t had it, the tree would’ve been gone.”

Sliker estimates that total cost for the Manhasset’s three trees and guards, installed and complete, was about $12,000.

Getting and planting your tree is like going through labor and delivery. Now comes raising it.

In the woods, trees pretty much raise themselves and, once you get them started, mostly do likewise in your average residential neighborhood, The most important component: proper watering. Most young trees die from underwatering – rain alone isn’t going to do it – but some are even done in by overwatering. Different species of trees need different amounts of water – you can find books online and lists galore with the specs for each – but generally, young trees need a good, thorough soaking about once a week. This means having your super, porter, or dedicated garden-committee residents water your tree with a hose for about five minutes, giving the water a chance to seep deep into the soil. But designate one person or committee, and don’t let anyone else water it or you might kill it with kindness.

Don’t stack garbage bags in the tree pit, and keep sidewalk salt away. Install a sign asking dogwalkers not to let Fido do his business there; some buildings plant a flower bed to discourage dog feces, although that means making sure the type of flora you choose doesn’t have a root system incompatible with your tree’s. “It doesn’t take a lot more to do it right than to do it wrong,” Calbwell says.

The Parks Department – which takes ownership of the tree after the landscaper’s one-year warranty expires – handles pruning, but you can also hire a professional arborist to do it. The latter requires a permit – as does pretty much anything else you want to do with the tree, from spraying bugs to installing lights or tree grates.

If your tree looks like it might be diseased, call your borough forestry office. And in the very off chance you see an inch-long, jet-black beetle with mottled white spots and long antennae with black-and-white bands, call 1-877-STOP-ALB immediately – that’s an Asian Longhorn, the Jeffrey Dahlmer of tree beetles.

You’ve also got neighborly resources in groups like the Horticultural Society of New York and Trees New York. You know how dog owners are about their dogs? These people are passionate in the same way about trees, and see them as living things that give you pleasure and acceptance.

Is the process worth it? Ask two cooperators who went through it. “Oh, my God, yes!” says Sliker. “Definitely worth the work.” Echoes Cocozzella: “Oh, yes! Oh, my gosh, the building looks so much better; the trees enhance the building so much. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

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