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City Getting to Root of Washington Square Park Tree Deaths

By Andrea Swalec | August 25, 2011 6:48am

GREENWICH VILLAGE — Trees in Washington Square Park have been mysteriously dying ever since the famed greenspace was redesigned — and some nature lovers are trying to get to the bottom of the problem.

Eight trees have died in Washington Square Park since May 2009 — all Zelkovas, a type of elm — near the park's fountain, a Parks Department official said Tuesday.  Four have already been removed and four others have been identified as dead or dying.

"We have experienced a series of failed plantings for the Zelkova trees in the area around Washington Square Park’s plaza," a Parks spokesman said. "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 redesign of Washington Square Park began in 2007 and eliminated dozens of trees more than 40 years old.
The redesign of Washington Square Park began in 2007 and eliminated dozens of trees more than 40 years old.
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DNAinfo/Andrea Swalec

Reconstruction of the park's fountain and plaza began in December 2007 and concluded in May 2009, according to the agency.

The trees that died were planted during the rehab efforts, which moved the fountain about 20 feet to the east so that it would align with the arch. Dozens of older trees were removed in the process.

One expert, Bronx-based arborist Ralph Padilla, 50, said he thought the Zelkova trees — which a Parks Department official said have a history of success in the city — had been planted incorrectly.

"It seems pretty obvious that this is an instance of a tree being planted too deeply," he said after looking at photographs. "Even though tree roots are underground, they need oxygen to survive. If they're too low into the ground, they will suffocate."

Padilla, who has cared for city trees for more than 20 years, said the Zelkova trees in the park that are already dying don't have much of a chance of survival. 

"If the canopy is green, it has a good chance. But if the leaves are all wilted, there's no coming back. It's too far gone," he said. 

Four trees that have been removed were replaced for free by the contractor who planted them, according to a Parks Department official. The other four trees need to be replaced by the city for approximately $1,500 each.

Cathryn Swan, who has tracked the park's trees on Washington Square Park Blog for more than three years, said multiple experts have told her the trees are dying because of inadequate drainage or having been planted too deep.

Swan, a Brooklyn resident who started her blog when she heard that the park's redesign would chop down trees more than 40 years old, said she thinks political issues are the real problem in the park, though.

"Every business and city agency has its own level of politics, and this problem is due to internal politics," she said. "People don't want to upset the designer, and so they're not speaking out."

Longtime architect and real estate agent George Vellonakis, who oversaw the park's redesign, did not respond to requests for comment. 

The Washington Square Park tree battle has deep roots. A group called the Emergency Coalition to Save Washington Square Park lost a 2007 lawsuit to stop the extensive reconstruction plans that resulted in the cutting down of about 32 trees.