When visitors go to Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, they often lounge next to the famous fountain or admire the Washington Square Arch sitting at the south end of Fifth Avenue. What they may not notice just a few yards away from that renowned arch are the crispy brown leaves atop a dead tree.
The sickly tree is one of eight that have died in the last two years. All of the doomed arbors were planted as part of a $30 million park renovation championed by the Bloomberg administration.
"The Parks Department is knowingly committing arborcide,” said Cathryn Swan, a neighbor who has been posting pictures of the dead trees on her website, the Washington Square Park Blog.
“There are two locations where the trees have been planted and replanted three times, and they’ve died all three times," Swan said. "I’m worried they’re going to plant those trees a fourth time. I just feel like it ends up being sort of heartbreaking.”
The New York City Parks Department said in a statement that it has experienced a series of "failed plantings" for the Zelkova trees in the area around the park plaza.
"We are investigating potential causes of why trees are not surviving here and will conduct soil tests, examine the drainage, and determine if there is a problem with this particular species," the statement said.
Professional arborist Ralph Padilla diagnosed the planting problem as relatively simple. "It was planted incorrectly," he said after examining the dead tree near the arch. "It was planted too deep."
“The giveaway is that all trees, before they enter the soil flare out slightly at the base,” he added.
The dead tree near the arch does not flare out at all, Padilla said. He said it was possible that private contractors or parks personnel repeated the mistake by burying the root balls of eight trees too far beneath the soil, suppressing oxygen supply. When roots are submerged too deeply, recent transplants can die.
Meanwhile, just over the East River, withered wood is being plucked from another green space. At the Queens Plaza Streetscape, contractors are nearly finished with a $46 million traffic redesign project, but 20 dead trees have plagued the scenery.
The New York City Economic Development Corporation, which manages the project, says the trees are under warranty and will be replaced free of charge. However, because city rules only allow planting during certain seasonal windows, that part of the project is stalled.
A Parks Department source told NBC New York six of the eight dead trees in Washington Square Park are under warranty, so the replacement cost will be just $3,000.
Still, critics say time is money. Cathryn Swan blames poor oversight and bureaucracy for the bungled plantings. Each time a tree fails to take root, contractors must wait for the next seasonal window to re-plant. Already, the Washington Square Park renovation has lasted nearly four years. The phase of the project that includes the dead trees was supposed to be wrapped up by 2009.
“People talk about bureaucracy and city government. You want to believe there are people who will step in and stop the bureaucracy sometimes, but with something like this it is clear that is not happening,” Swan said.