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Volume 73, Number 29 | November 19 - 25, 2003



Two trees removed for Abingdon renovation project

By Albert Amateau

Villager photo by Jessie McNab-Dennis

A 20-ft. tree is removed from Abingdon Sq. last Sunday.

The removal of two London plane trees from the south corner of Abingdon Sq. last weekend in connection with the Department of Parks’ $750,000 reconstruction of the square provoked the outrage of a group of neighbors who have been opposing the project for more than a year.

Contractors on the reconstruction project started the tree removal last Saturday and hauled them away on Sun., Nov.16.

Margie Rubin, a wheelchair-using resident of Westbeth and member of Disabled in Action, charged that the weekend tree removal was timed to evade a Wed., Nov. 19, State Supreme Court hearing on a lawsuit by disabled neighbors seeking to block the reconstruction.

“The Parks Department has not acted in good faith removing those trees just days before our hearing,” said Rubin. “They could have waited until after the judge [State Supreme Court Justice Kibbe Payne] heard us out — that people in wheelchairs, people on medication and diabetics who can’t sit in the sun are about to lose the last park in the neighborhood where we can congregate.”

Opponents are also incensed that the statue of the World War I soldier, popularly known as “The Doughboy,” is being moved from the north side of the triangle to a spot closer to the center of the park.

But William Castro, Manhattan Borough Commissioner for parks, said the trees were not destroyed but were transplanted to Schiff Park on 136th St. “One was moved to make room for a new park entrance at the southern end of the park and the other was moved because it would have blocked the Doughboy monument in its new site,” said Castro. “The park had a lot of paving and we’ve greened it,” he added. The tree removed from the park’s south end was 20-ft. tall, while the one removed nearer the park’s middle was a sapling.

Despite approval by Community Board 2, the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the city Art Commission, the dissenting group, represented by their attorney, Jack Lester, has sued the city to stop the Abingdon Sq. renovation.

The removal and trimming of mature shade trees and the replacement of the triangular park’s central paved area with a kidney-shaped lawn and eight-ft.-wide flower beds around the perimeter are features of the plan that the suit contends deprives handicapped people of their accustomed use of the park.

The proposal to pave the paths around the lawn with bluestone slabs would create an uneven surface difficult to negotiate by wheelchair, dissidents say.

“Not true,” said Castro. The bluestone paving will be honed to a smooth finish, he said. “The park will be completely handicap accessible and compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. We’ve taken suggestions from neighbors and made it so that people in wheelchairs can be right next to their friends and helpers sitting on benches,” he said.

Many neighbors welcome the new park design by Peter Vellonakis, landscape architect on the project.

“This park needs renovation and repair. It’s an eyesore, There’s no grass, what kind of park is that?” said Aubrey Lees, a West Village resident and head of the community board’s Parks Committee. “The Parks Department is not murdering trees, they were removed very carefully in accordance with the plan,” Lees added.

However, Jessie McNab-Dennis, a Westbeth resident and art historian who works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said the removal of the two trees was not included in plans approved by Landmarks and the Art Commission. “The plans were fraudulently presented to Landmarks Preservation and the Arts Commission,” she said.

Patti Brown, a former patient at the Village Nursing Home across Eighth Ave. from the park and a wheelchair user, contended the park is being reconstructed to promote gentrification. “No matter how expensive this neighborhood becomes, its parks aren’t supposed to be turned into something that looks good on a real estate brochure,” Brown said. “They’re for people to use, to sit in and enjoy, even people who aren’t perfect.”


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