The removal earlier this year of 25 linden trees on Pine Grove Avenue shocked and dismayed many Kingston residents. But according to Mayor Steve Noble and Superintendent of Department of Public Works Edward Norman, the trees had to be taken down because of an upgrade to a sewer line, which was located beneath the median.
Four of the trees were salvaged and replanted at sites elsewhere in the city. The mayor said once the project is completed in the fall, the city will plant 20 new trees on Pine Grove and new plantings and landscaping will be maintained by Fuller Holdings LLC and the YMCA, which adjoin the area.
“My administration has worked tirelessly to protect our city’s natural resources and create more green space,” Noble wrote in an email, citing the recently completed Open Space Plan and Natural Resources Inventory. The mayor noted that the city has received two tree-related grants of $50,000 each, one of which funded a tree inventory and the other the removal of dead or dying trees and maintenance.
But as the loss of the lindens illustrated, the city’s re-engineering of streets and sidewalks for green initiatives comes at an ironic cost: the removal of mature shade trees and mid-sized and smaller trees — some thriving, some unhealthy — which in most cases will be replaced by new trees.
City officials appear to be are taking an approach that will result in the loss of mature trees and bluestone sidewalks, rather than an approach that could have saved some trees and bluestone. Kristen Wilson, the city’s director of grants management, defended that approach as prudent in terms of cost, and said the city is doing its best to preserve the few slabs of historic bluestone which still remain on Broadway. (According to the current plan, the bluestone sidewalk will be preserved in front of UPAC; elsewhere, presumably the city will be depositing the removed bluestone in its bluestone bank.)
The most significant of these projects is the Broadway Streetscape, which will install a new roadway and cement sidewalks from St. James to Grand Street, including new traffic lanes, redesigned cross walks and storm-water-absorbing bioswales. The project will require the removal of all of the existing 71 trees. They include two mature sycamores in front of the YMCA, which has prompted pushback from tree advocates.
Last spring, Anne Shultz, president of the Memorial Tree Fund, a nonprofit that raises money to plant trees in the city, sent a letter to the mayor asking that the sycamores and the hackberry across the street be saved.
The Tree Commission also lobbied for saving the sycamores and hackberry, in a May 22 letter to Mayor Noble. In response, Robert Jobin, the project engineer at Greenman-Pedersen Inc. (GPI), the firm contracted to design and construct the project, wrote the mayor that the sycamores have grown too large for the site, with their roots growing into the roadway. The city has decided the trees must come down.
“We’re not happy about the decision,” said Shultz. “When you plant trees they need to be watered and cared for, and it takes a long time for them to mature.” When Wilson addressed the issue at the Tree Commission’s June 11 meeting, she said sidewalk upheaval from the sycamores made it impossible to save the trees. But members of the commission said there were solutions. “Increasing the size of the tree well and shaving some of the exposed roots can help,” commissioner Lin Fagan later wrote in an email. “The sidewalk itself can be mounded slightly to make room for the tree roots.” Wilson disputed this, saying in a later interview the roots won’t stop growing even if the sidewalks were mounded.
The Tree Commission also expressed disapproval of the bioswales, which members said require a lot of maintenance. Wilson said the city is developing a maintenance plan and will partner with the Kingston Land Trust.
Julia Farr, executive director of the Kingston Land Trust, wrote in an email that because the Broadway Streetscape is considered part of the Greenline, which is a joint initiative between the city and the trust, she attended some of the meetings with the city and the engineer and made recommendations. “The urban reality is that trees unfortunately often get the short end of the stick if there are competing needs for land use,” Farr wrote, noting that she had asked the engineers to identify healthy trees but was told ultimately none could be saved. “In the case of Broadway, there are competing green uses, as the trees are being removed to make way for the bioswales, which are green infrastructure that reduce polluted water from entering into our water bodies.”
After the new infrastructure is in place, 74 trees will be planted along the Broadway corridor, some within the bioswales, along with 190 shrubs and 1,300 smaller plants, according to Wilson. The types of trees include serviceberry, black tupelo, hackberry, little leaf linden and burr oak — species selected with input from the Tree Commission.
“This is an opportunity to re-evaluate trees, choosing those that are best for a sustainable future,” Farr said. “A lot of mistakes were made in the past regarding street trees,” including not just the planting of the sycamores but Bradford pears, a pretty but fatally weak tree that tends to drop its branches and blow over in a storm.
Indeed, the Tree Commission is in agreement on this point and recommended that the row of Bradford pears along Greenkill Avenue be taken down when a portion of the state Department of Transportation-funded Empire State Trail is built along the route. A DOT spokesperson said the commission recommended that the American sycamore, white oak and common hackberry be planted instead.
The construction of the much-delayed DOT-funded and engineered roundabout at the intersection of Broadway, I-587 and Albany Avenue will entail the removal of 40 trees, many of which, located in park-like medians, create oases of shade. The DOT spokesperson wrote that after the new infrastructure is put in 74 deciduous trees, including sugar maples, red maples, honey locusts, tulip trees, eastern redbuds and flowering dogwoods — all species considered desirable by arborists — will be planted, along with 157 deciduous shrubs and 477 herbaceous plants.
But on Henry Street, which is slated to get a new sidewalk on one side and a walking-biking sidepath on the other, there could be a net loss of green cover. The Henry Street project, which is being funded by a $1.3 million DOT Safe Routes to School grant (the city will kick in an additional $337,000), would replace the sidewalk on the east side of the street with an eight-foot-wide side path accommodating both pedestrians and bicyclists. It will require the removal of the nine existing trees as well as the grass strip between the sidewalk and street.
According to certified arborist John Duvall, a recent transplant to Kingston who walked the neighborhood with a small group of us, portions of the grass bordering the sidewalk on Henry would be ideal for the planting of larger shade trees since it has a larger width than the narrow strips of grass on Broadway.) There is also an unanswered question about where the row of utility poles, which are positioned where the colored bike path would be, will be located.
And because many of the houses near the Broadway end are close to the sidewalk, there will not be room for the planting of trees on adjoining private property in some stretches. So not only will there be more stormwater, but there will also be less shade — running counter to the city’s goals as outlined in the Open Space Plan. (From page 16: “Urban trees … contribute greatly through the ecosystem services they affect, including … energy consumption — by helping to keep local areas cool, thereby mitigating ‘urban heat islands’ in summer.” Further along, the plan notes that “few conservation efforts would mean as much to Kingston as protecting and effectively stewarding its urban forest … The city could be cooler, greener and support both physical and mental health within the municipality.”)
Regarding the trees on the west side of the street, Wilson writes that many “are inappropriately sized” and “have already caused the sidewalk to heave or will do so in the future … Existing trees will be preserved wherever possible but future maintenance issues need to be considered as well.” While she did not know how many trees would be planted, pending the design approval from the DOT, she said “we anticipate a net increase.”
Wilson said it was too early to describe details for the Franklin Street Complete Streets project, which will be funded by a $750,000 state Complete Streets grant with a match from the city. It calls for new cement sidewalks, bicycle infrastructure and crosswalks the entire length of the street, with the historic bluestone sidewalk preserved in the two blocks that overlap the Fair Street Historic District (but not the section outside the district on both sides of the street extending to Clinton Avenue, unfortunately; a strip of historic bluestone on Henry will also be dismantled).
Should the tree commission have more power?
City code requires a resident to apply for a permit from the Tree Commission to remove a tree on a street or in a public park, but municipal projects are exempt from that process. When someone applies for a permit, the commission tries to save the tree, said commission member Sarah Wenk. “Very frequently we’ll say ‘no’ to the permit. We’ll try to find a way around taking the tree down,” unless the tree is dead and can’t be saved.
“I would like to see the city make more efforts to save the trees we have, which is what we ask homeowners to do,” Wenk added. “I would like to see us get consulted on every project that involves trees.”
But that’s not how the process has worked, commissioners say. According to comments made by Wilson at a Laws and Rules Committee meeting held June 19, members of the Commission are not informed by email about a project and instead are advised to attend public meetings to learn about an upcoming project.
Kingston resident and activist Tanya Garment said the lack of input from the Tree Commission early on in the process — prior to public hearings — tied its hands later on. “The public engagement meetings for grant-funded projects are held after important decisions are already made,” Garment wrote in an email. “At the same time, important details are left out. Shouldn’t the actual plans be made available to the relevant boards and commissions, at the very least?”
Jeffrey Morell, alderman for Ward 1, who serves as the liaison between the Tree Commission and the Common Council, said more needs to be done to involve the Tree Commission in city projects. “Maybe we need to write it into the code to make it a best practice that if there is a project it triggers a response that the Tree Commission be involved early on, the same way a project in a Historic District triggers notifying the Historic Landmarks Preservation Commission,” he said.
Wilson said she will be reaching out to the property owners on Henry and welcomes feedback from the public via email. “We will work with the Tree Commission” as the plan progresses, she said, cautioning that until the DOT signs off on the road, sidewalk and sidepath plan, decisions about trees can’t be made.
Wilson said she had recommended that “the Tree Commission have a comprehensive street tree plan,” which perhaps could get grant funding. She also would support the hiring of a trained arborist to help maintain the city’s trees.
The clear-cutting of 27 trees on a property at the corner of Emerson and Johnston streets on May 7 and 8, which created an eyesore and led to erosion and storm-water runoff affecting the neighbors, highlighted another challenge: the lack of effective legislation overseeing tree cutting on private sites for development. Neighbor Arthur Anderson attended the June 11 Tree Commission meeting and the July 15 Planning Board meeting to draw the city’s attention to the incident. He said many of the trees were mature, including two large black walnuts. The property owner intended to build a five-bay garage and parking lot on the cleared lot, but he had failed to get a permit, so the city imposed a stop-work order.
The owner had also failed to comply with an ordinance in the city code (under 405-30, Site Development Plan Approval, C. 6.) that requires owners of sites under development to retain “to the maximum extent possible” “all existing trees over eight inches in diameter, measured three feet above the base of the trunk.” He subsequently applied for a lot-line revision between his residence and an adjacent lot he had just acquired from the city planning board, which it approved. Anderson appealed to the board to require the owner to replace the downed trees and otherwise monitor the activity at the site to ensure the property owner complies with the stop work order and follows the law.
“I moved to Kingston because it was not only historic, it was a Tree City USA,” said Anderson. “The big shock is this particular vacant lot was clear cut without any notices to the planning department or any of the neighbors … The [city] planning department has jurisdiction over the types of trees in terms of size that can be taken down, but [the property owner is] not being penalized at this point. Hopefully the planning board will require him to replant the trees so it becomes a green space.”
“There’s a loophole in the law,” said Morell, noting that there’s no provision for enforcement, regarding the overseeing department or penalty if the law is violated. New legislation might solve the problem, and Morell said the Open Space Plan “is another avenue we could use to discourage cutting down trees.”
Wenk suggested introducing and passing a tree ordinance. “The Tree Commission is more active, and we have a lot of big projects coming up. A little more consideration could lead to more trust and better outcomes. Even if we save only 20 percent of the trees [in a project], it’s better than saving none.”
Kingston puts a value on trees
Many towns and cities have tree ordinances which not only protect trees but carry severe penalties when the law is violated. In Westchester County, Irvington has an ordinance that not only protects trees on public land but also prevents the removal or damage to any tree measuring more than eight inches in diameter on private property, as well smaller trees on slopes and in wetland areas. The penalty for damage, which includes pruning that damages or disfigures the tree, starts at $500 and is as high as $2,000 per tree.
Cities from Baltimore to Springfield, Mass. (which, according to a recent report on WAMC, hired an arborist to protect a group of legacy oaks) are aggressively planting and protecting trees. But in making the case for protecting local trees, there’s a resource closer to home: the city’s own Tree Inventory, which was completed last year (and is cited in the Conservation Advisory Council’s recently completed Open Space Plan).
The inventory actually quantifies the benefits in dollars: trees provide $426,281 in annual benefits (by saving energy from the cooling effect of shade, improving air quality, reducing carbon emissions, absorbing stormwater and enhancing aesthetics, each of which is valued at a specific dollar amount). The total replacement cost for the city’s trees is $12,713,819. The Tree Inventory is posted on the city’s website.
Historic bluestone at risk
New trees can be planted to replace those that are cut down, and over time, the street once again will be shaded and green. But when a historic bluestone sidewalk is removed, it’s likely gone forever, and, many believe, a portion of Kingston’s identity leaves with it.
As Friends of Historic Kingston notes on its website, “bluestone is part of what you picture when you close your eyes and think about Kingston [as distinguished from] Peoria or someplace else.” Bluestone sidewalks are “a visual feature that in a sense, hold the city together — Uptown, Midtown and Downtown.”
The city’s zoning code protects historic bluestone sidewalks in the city’s historic districts, but outside those areas, the multi-hued slabs of stone are steadily disappearing, either stolen or replaced by property owners with asphalt and cement. The city itself, citing concerns about making walkways safer, plans to remove historic bluestone sidewalks in Midtown to make way for new sidewalks.
Specifically, historic bluestone is slated to be removed on Broadway, as part of the Broadway Streetscape project to install a new roadway and cement sidewalks, and both the Safe Routes to School DOT-grant funded project on Henry Street and the Complete Streets DEC-funded project on Franklin Street will replace stretches of surviving historic bluestone with cement. In addition, under the current proposal the bluestone curbs will be replaced with granite.
Kristen Wilson, director of the city’s Office of Grants Management, said these stone sidewalks are “not in good shape” and are “inconsistent” with the new infrastructure. Furthermore, they are not ADA-compliant, a requirement for infrastructure projects funded by state and federal grants, she said.
Indeed, Mayor Steve Noble noted in an email to this reporter that a goal of his administration, in making “Kingston accessible for all,” is to bring the city in compliance with the Federal Disabilities Act Law standards. That’s a laudable goal, but how will that impact preservation of one of Kingston’s most historic and unique assets? Outside the historic districts, is historic bluestone doomed?
In 2013, under the previous administration, the city conducted a bluestone survey, funded in part by the National Park Service, which mapped the stone in the historic areas.
The survey noted that the historic bluestone sidewalks, some of which are more than 150 years old (a tribute to their durability), contribute to the city’s “history, charm and attraction.” They also relate to what “is perhaps Kingston’s most important industry”: Ulster County bluestone, which was quarried starting in the 1830s and was exported as sidewalk, curb and building material to dozens of cities as far afield as San Francisco and Havana. The survey report advised documenting bluestone in neighborhoods outside the historic districts as well and advocated for its preservation citywide.
“The City must embrace the recognition of its historic infrastructure and a philosophy of preservation of these important but disappearing assets,” Jack Braunlein, the author of the report, wrote. “Kingston’s extensive offering of landmark buildings, historic neighborhoods … and picturesque streetscapes can be given new life by sidewalk restorations that improve walkability and showcase the city’s charm and attractiveness.”
Braunlein acknowledged that isolated, “small patches of bluestone” sidewalk might be out of place with new development and would best be preserved in the city’s bluestone bank, where the slabs could be used in another area of the city to “preserve its historical integrity.”
The bluestone sidewalk on Henry Street that will be removed extends from Clinton Avenue to Sterling Street and qualifies as an anomalous “patch” that doesn’t fit with the planned eight-foot-wide pedestrian and bike side path. While I haven’t closely examined or measured the slabs to see if they comply with the city’s sidewalk code, which was updated in 2017 (existing bluestone is in “satisfactory” condition if it doesn’t have “displaced cracks or delamination,” vertically aligns with adjoining slabs at not more than a quarter inch difference, and is horizontally aligned no more than an inch offset from the center line of the sidewalk), I nonetheless enjoyed the experience of walking on it, since the street is flat and there is none of the upheaval that elsewhere can make bluestone slabs hazardous.
The bluestone sidewalk nicely rhymed with the nearby bluestone retaining wall edging the adjoining properties that rose from lush green grass. I knew I was in a historic city, conveyed not only by the street’s 19th-century architecture but also by the very stuff beneath my feet. I was literally walking on history.
On Franklin Street, there are expanses of bluestone sidewalk on both sides of the street from Wall to Clinton. The Complete Streets sidewalk replacement project preserves the two blocks adjacent to Fair because they are in the Fair Street Historic District and must be preserved by law, but the city is not obligated to do beyond Pine.
“Kingston should work with grantors to ensure that its historic bluestone is preserved,” said Lowell Thing, a local historian and author who worked on the Bluestone Survey as a volunteer. “Our bluestone is part of the very fabric of our local landscape and streetscape in many places.”
Thing added that at over 100 years old, “a lot of Kingston’s historic bluestone sidewalk wouldn’t conform with ADA. But it can be fixed either through repair or by combining the old stone with bricks or cement or with new bluestone to be safely walkable.”
Old bluestone can be restored to be ADA-compliant, agreed Wilson, but it’s “much more expensive and difficult to source. It’s problematic, but it can be done.”