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Habitat Magazine Business of Management 2021




The Tree Pit That Became a Money Pit

Marianne Schaefer in Bricks & Bucks on May 2, 2018

NoHo, Manhattan

Tree Pit

Workers digging a pit on Bond Street where no tree will ever grow (image courtesy CTA Architects).

May 2, 2018

After CTA Architects finished an elaborate restoration of the cast-iron facade of a post-Civil War jewel on the Bowery, the condo building’s owners decided the place needed a finishing touch. 

“The Bond Street side of the building is about 100 feet long and looks a little sad without a tree,” says Christa Waring, a principal at CTA. So the firm was tasked with making a tree (or two) grow on Bond Street. Simple, right? In New York City, as the condo board was about to learn, nothing is simple. 

“We had to file for many permits,” says Matthew Jenkins, CTA’s project manager on the job. “They all had to be done in a certain sequence. The end goal was to get a permit from the Department of Transportation (DOT), because it affects the street.” 

Since the building is in the Noho Historic District, the first stop was the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). Once that permit was secured, the architects approached the Department of Buildings (DOB). “When you file for anything with the DOB, you have to test for hazardous materials,” says Jenkins. “This means we had to test the mortar, the concrete, and the waterproofing. In addition, the DOB also requested a builder's pavement plan (BPP). In order to get a BPP, a new survey had to be done.” 

CTA hired a company that surveyed every inch outside the building – sidewalk, stairs, street signs, mailboxes. The architects included a drawing with the survey results in the BPP, all of it designed to lay out the precise design, how the two proposed tree pits would affect public spaces, and that the sidewalk would be safe for pedestrians. 

After winning approval from the DOB, the third stop was yet another city agency. “The Parks Department is the most important because they have very strict standards,” says Jenkins. “They immediately said, ‘Ok, this is a very old cobblestone street, and we have no idea how many utility lines are below the sidewalk.’ So we had to hire yet another company to do ground-penetrating radar.” 

This x-ray of the ground beneath the proposed tree pits revealed about a dozen utility lines. “Unfortunately we had no idea what those things are,” says Jenkins. “They couldn’t tell us how deep those lines are and what they are for. Could be gas, could be electric, could be telephone, could be anything.” 

Yet another contractor was hired. “They started digging and went about six feet down,” says Jenkins. “They found some of those lines and ruled them out as old lines no one uses anymore. We could not find all the lines, and digging deeper would’ve been very difficult. To find them we felt we would have had to dig a hole all the way to China.” 

The tree pit had turned into such a voracious money pit that the condo board decided to abort the project. “We knew we were unable to get the permit from the Parks Department with still unidentified lower utility lines,” says Jenkins. “The hole in the sidewalk has been replaced with a nice tinted color that makes the Landmarks Commission happy.” 

Parks Department spokesperson Maeri Ferguson insists that the city’s notoriously byzantine bureaucracy is not the villain in this story. “It is our goal to plant as many trees as possible wherever we can,” Ferguson says. “We issued over 100 voluntary tree-planting permits last year. But we also have a responsibility to avoid planting in areas that may compromise the surrounding infrastructure.” 

So even after the condo board dug deep to pay for contractors, architectural services, expediters, and filing fees, the Bond Street side of the building remains treeless. “I would say they spent about $40,000 chasing something that just couldn’t be accomplished,” says CTA’s Waring. “There is no happy ending.”

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