PLEASE SUPPORT W42ST
W42ST runs on limited resources to keep Hell’s Kitchen connected, updated and upbeat. Access is totally free. Please consider supporting what we do so that we can continue our work!
During the day, sunlight bounced off the concrete overpass outside Santosh Chandrasekaran’s apartment in Briarwood, Queens, and spilled into his window, overheating the home he shared with his wife.
He enthusiastically sent in his request in August2019 — but never heard back. He thought about following up, but soon moved to a different home and dropped the idea.
“I was disappointed,” Chandrasekaran said — all the more so because he had admired the Department of Parks & Recreation’s efforts to care for street trees and even map them citywide. “All that was super awesome. I was inspired. It made me think this would work, but it didn’t.”
Chandrasekaran is not the only New Yorker to submit a tree-planting request via the 311 system, only to sow seeds of frustration. So bad is the backlog that the parks department advises the impatient how to cut to the front of the line: Make an $1,800 donation to a charity supporting the department.
So far in 2022, over 13,000 requests have poured in, on pace to exceed the 15,000 a year average between 2017 and 2021. Yet in recent years, just one-third of 311 requests have resulted in a tree being planted, according to the parks department.
The average wait time for a request to be completed went from 342 days in 2017 to 909 days in 2019 — the last year that the department even tracked the progress of 311 requests. Of the street trees planted in 2019 via 311, 58% resulted from requests filed in 2016.
That’s where the City Parks Foundation comes in, for those who can afford to pay for first-class service.
The nonprofit organization, founded in 1989, operates from within the parks department’s historic headquarters, the Arsenal in Central Park, and brought in nearly $13 million in revenue in 2020. It operates hand in glove with the parks department, taking in corporate and personal charitable donations that it uses to support volunteer programs, cultural programs, parks improvements and more.
For between $1,800 and $3,100, depending on the species, a donor to the Tree Time program of the Parks Foundation can get a tree planting fast-tracked for the location of their choice. According to Parks, three in four trees planted by Tree Time are on behalf of corporate donors, with the rest coming from individuals or neighborhood groups.
Washington Heights resident Zachary Cohen discovered Tree Time after waiting three years for his neighbor’s 311 requests to yield fruit — with no trees in sight to fill empty pits on their street. He followed up with the parks department, where, Cohen told THE CITY, a friendly employee told him about a way to speed up tree requests: make a tax-deductible donation to Tree Time.
Cohen reached out to Tree Time and immediately received a personalized email, informing him that if he donated $1,800 to the City Parks Foundation, Tree Time could plant his tree this same fall.
He added that he “got a response within 14 minutes,” of emailing Tree Time. “And that was after 5 p.m.” In contrast, he noted, a 311 request results in an automated acknowledgment email and nothing more.
As a nonprofit, the Parks Foundation is not subject to city government procurement rules. Its $1,800 entry level tree planting costs half as much as each tree taxpayers buy via the parks department, which cost an average of $3,600, according to testimony at a City Council hearing in June.
Shortly thereafter, the parks department informed Cohen that the trees he and his neighbors had requested via 311 would be planted in spring 2023 — more than three years after the first request was made.
The Planting Process
The parks department kicked off its fall planting season Oct. 1 and will continue until Dec. 31. During this time, 5,500 trees, including 4,400 street trees, will be planted, according to the agency.
The planting process begins with foresters who survey every potential site, make sure there are no conflicts with surrounding infrastructure and evaluate sites using guidelines that specify how far apart a tree must be from a street sign or from another tree, for example.
If the site is deemed suitable for a new tree, it gets added to the next available planting contract, the agency said. In selecting planting sites, the department says it considers 311 requests, but it’s also guided by other factors such as the NYC Heat Vulnerability Index, used to pinpoint areas where people are at heightened risk of dying from extreme heat. In fiscal year 2022, the parks department planted about a quarter of new trees in these neighborhoods.
The department acknowledges the process of requesting a tree via 311 can typically take up to three years, attributing the extended timeline to how long it takes to inspect sites, funding and contract availability.
“Our expert Foresters identify planting sites for street trees by responding to public requests and by actively surveying neighborhoods for spaces that can support trees — we urge any New Yorker who would like a new street tree to visit our website, or call 311 to request an inspection for a viable location,” said Dan Kastanis, a parks department spokesperson.
Barriers to public requests persist. On the parks department website, it states that you must be a property owner to request a tree. (In fact, the department says, anyone can request a street tree.) And those instructions are in English only.
Nudging the Forester
In the absence of paying $1,800, New Yorkers determined to get a tree planted may have to be very squeaky wheels.
Three years was how long Aaron Naparstek of Park Slope, Brooklyn, followed up about his 311 request — filed in 2018 — before a breakthrough. By email, he reached Brooklyn’s forester.
Naparstek, a cycling advocate who founded Streetsblog, earnestly explained his situation via email and requested an update, to which the forester said the sites “have not been judged for their suitability as yet however your tenacity, perseverance and genteel approach have convinced me to specifically survey them the next time I am in the area.”
A few days later, the forester bumped Naparstek’s tree onto the spring planting list, and come spring 2021, an American linden tree was planted outside Naparstek’s home.
Naparstek eventually got what he wanted, but he says the process should be much faster and easier, especially given the benefits of planting trees such as providing shade and cleaner air.
“While I found the Parks people to be amazing, I obviously had the time and wherewithal to do this hyperlocal advocacy. Most other people don’t,” Naparstek said. “You’re not going to get equitable outcomes if it requires personally nagging the head forester of Brooklyn.”
THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.