There are more than 100,000 trees in Van Cortlandt Park, and each of them has its own unique story. Without them, the park wouldn’t be the thriving natural oasis it is today.
But parks are places for the human animal to escape to when endless concrete and asphalt grows too harsh. To accommodate us, there will be work that requires the sacrifice of those trees, which so faithfully watched over the park’s soft meadows.
Two ongoing projects could be good for the park, but it also will mean the city will have to remove some 160 mature trees for construction.
It’s a heartbreaking prospect for nature lovers who’ve spent a lot of their own time advocating for the park. Despite years of resisting paving of the Putnam Trail — a long-defunct railway right-of-way through the park — Debbi Dolan is sad to see more trees felled for construction projects.
“It will change the character from bucolic and rustic, to more manicured,” Dolan said. “It’s symptomatic of what’s happening globally.”
Last year, Councilman Andrew Cohen’s office announced it secured the remaining funding to build a $21 million pedestrian bridge over the Major Deegan Expressway, connecting two sides of the park. According to a design presented to Community Board 8 in 2018, the city would need to remove 82 trees to build the bridge’s ramps and paths.
The other more controversial project involves construction of a new golf clubhouse and a parking lot to serve the park’s southwest corner. It was part of the Croton Water Filtration Plant constructed in Van Cortlandt Park that came online in 2015.
It’s designed to filter a third of the city’s water and lies just beneath the 9-acre driving range. The nearly $4 billion plant is one of the city’s largest infrastructure projects.
A compromise in the Croton design was 43 acres of decommissioned parkland the city could now use for a different purpose. Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz argues some of the project lies outside this “alienation zone,” which would make removal of some trees illegal.
Requests to see exactly which trees are considered for removal haven’t been fulfilled, the Assemblyman said. Therefore, it’s not yet settled that the trees to be removed will all be inside the alienation zone.
“I must say that the lack of responsiveness by the agency involved is typical of how things are,” Dinowitz said. “The lack of transparency is nonetheless very disturbing because some of us — in fact. many of us — are very protective of the trees in our community, and in our parks.”
Project managers do a careful study before approving tree removal, according to a parks department spokesman, even when another agency is actually executing the work.
In these instances, the parks department isn’t the lead agency on the project. The city’s design and construction department will build the pedestrian bridge. The environmental protection department will handle work at the Croton plant.
The parks department requires a forester to review each construction proposal carefully to determine how they can preserve as many trees as possible, according to a spokesman. The lead agency must provide evidence there’s no question trees need to be removed to complete construction.
The parks and construction departments are still negotiating the number of trees to be removed, said Bob Bender, chair of Community Board 8’s parks committee.
“My understanding is that (the design and construction department) has come up with a figure that everyone else is questioning and asking DDC to justify,” Bender said. “So that, too, is a work in progress.”
But until there are definites, Bender says the committee isn’t making an official stance other than it wants what’s best for the park.
“These are projects that have been going on for a while, so this isn’t unexpected,” said Julie Micou Cerf, interim director of the Van Cortlandt Park Alliance.
There have been public hearings in the past about tree removal, and lots of discussion about how to conserve as much as possible, she said. But it’s still caught some by surprise.
“I think some people have noticed that some of the trees have been tagged and they feel alarmed that they weren’t informed,” Cerf said.
The alliance understands the concern about taking down old trees, but isn’t taking a position because the organization is new and still developing its policies on how to preserve, support and protect the park, she added.
Although it’d be just a fraction of all the trees on the park grounds, some people have become fond of ones they often pass or sit near.
“People care about trees in a specific spot,” Cerf said. “They’ll care more about the trees in these specific spots than they do about other spots where I think nobody ever goes.”