Trees & Sidewalks Repair Program

by Anne Schwartz, Apr 15, 2005

In a small but significant step forward for both street trees and public safety, the city has begun a $3.4 million pilot program to fix sidewalks that have been damaged by tree roots, at no cost to the homeowner. The program is targeted to owners of one-, two-, and three-family houses.

Previously, the owner of the property next to the unsafe sidewalk would be issued a violation by the city Department of Transportation and was responsible for the repair. Although the parks department would take care of trimming the roots, the homeowner had to arrange for a contractor to remove the old sidewalk and put in a new one, at a cost of around $1,000.

"I have reams of letters from homeowners, some anguished and some angry, lamenting the unfairness of having to repair a sidewalk when the damage was caused by a publicly owned tree, in many cases planted by the city," said Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe. "It was creating a great deal of frustration and anger toward the city and trees."

Under the new Trees & Sidewalks Repair Program, all homeowners have to do is call 311. The parks department will come up with a solution to the safety problem that also protects the health of the tree. Potential repairs include expanding the pit, especially on lightly traveled sidewalks; slightly raising the level of the sidewalk to go over the roots; or strengthening the flags. Top priority will be given to sidewalks with the most severe damage, with a larger percentage of the pathway affected, and with the highest levels of pedestrian traffic. The transportation department will continue to conduct inspections and issue violations, but will notify the parks department when violations appear to be caused by trees.

Good for the Trees, Good for the Bottom Line

Although for years the city was reluctant to allocate money for fixing root-damaged sidewalks, over the long term, it could prove to be a smart investment. It should lead to safer sidewalks, fewer people falling, and a reduction in lawsuits against the city. Until last year, when the city passed a law making property owners liable for injuries that occur on sidewalks in front of their buildings, the city spent about $20 million a year on lawsuits by people who tripped and fell on sidewalks, according to Kate O’Brien Ahlers of the New York City Law Department. Although claims have dropped 30 to 40 percent since the passage of the new law, it does not cover owners of one-, two-, and three-family houses, to whom the sidewalk repair program is targeted.

The program is also expected to enhance the health of the urban forest, boosting its value both in economic terms and to the city’s quality of life. It costs $1.110 to replace a street tree and, with the worth of a street tree with a 3-foot-wide trunk roughly $10,000, every tree that thrives helps the bottom line. That does not include the real (if not easily quantifiable) value of trees in filtering pollutants, reducing energy costs, and raising real estate values, to list just a few of the benefits. For example, a study by U.S.D.A. scientist David J. Nowak estimated that in 2000, New York City’s street trees reduced 1,500 tons of pollutants at an associated value of $8 million.

Conditions are difficult to begin with for the city’s half million street trees, which live in a hotter, drier, and more dangerous environment than their park counterparts. Historically, the city has provided minimal funding for maintaining the trees, and only for pruning. The frequency of street tree pruning was increased in 1997, but funding for pruning is one of the first things to be cut when budgets are tight. The city depends on citizens and nonprofits like TreesNY for other essential care, such as watering, cultivating the soil, monitoring for disease and insects, and putting up tree guards .

By having the parks department oversee the repairs, the new program will make sure that they are done with greater sensitivity to the health of the tree. And homeowners dealing with cracked and raised sidewalks will view street trees as less of a nuisance.

The program was funded in part by the borough presidents of Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx. "It is a program we would like to see work and become permanent," said Dan Andrews, speaking for Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, noting that Queens has the most street trees of any borough.

Judging from the number of requests for sidewalk repairs in the first two days after the program was announced -- nearly 1,500, half the number of root-trimming requests the department received in an entire year in the past — there is a huge pent-up demand.

"It’s one of the extremely gratifying common-sense things that we’ve all wanted to do for years," Benepe said. "It will do more to improve both the survival rates of street trees and homeowners’ relationship to street trees than anything else we could have done."