Hicks Elm Tree: Is It Our Business?

2tree.jpgThe controversy surrounding the removal of the huge century old American elm tree at 145 Hicks Street continues with the Brooklyn Paper shedding some light on the coop board's decision:

It’s the latest salvo in an ongoing battle that appeared to reach its climax on July 18, when the co-op board at Mansion House, at 145 Hicks St., voted 5–2 (in private) to cut down the tree rather than spend $8,000 to reroute electrical pipes that were caught in the path of the tree’s extensive root system.

On Monday, the board will hold an open meeting to discuss its ruling, and residents expect it to get ugly. One shareholder said five or six residents have already agreed to chain themselves to the tree to prevent its removal. “I’m not sure [the board would] like to see that,” the shareholder said. “Especially when the New York Times … shows up.”

The coop board (only 7 people in a building that large… are we missing something?) seems to be very direct in its desire to save some money by choosing to cut down the tree rather than reroute electric pipes. However, the B'Paper reports that the cost of the building's current renovations are running off the rails of the Crazy Train going from a proposed $150k to recent estimates of $400k. So this is really a budgetary CYA maneuver on the part of the 145 Hicks board. The $8k to save the tree is literally the last straw in a bigger financial calamity. 

While there seems to be very strong opposition to the tree chopping within the coop itself, it's clear that Brooklyn Heights residents at large feel that this elm is part of our neighborhood's overall character. And in a landmark district, shouldn't it be necessary for decisions like this to be vetted via Landmarks?

And therein lies the point — is this any of our business? Is this a private matter between a coop, its board and nature? 145 Hicks coop board member/tree choppin' supporter Phyllis Dicker thinks so, telling the paper that this is “a private matter between the board members and the shareholders.”

What do you think? 

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  • nabeguy

    8 grand when they’ve already blown 250K on cost overruns seems like a pittance. Given the miscalculation, I wonder how this board even remains in power. The fact is, the tree misses being on public property by inches, being just on the other side of the property wall, so legally, it’s the occupants decision to make, but they should be sensitive to it’s public presence and history. Just curious if anyone knows which came first, the building or the tree? If it’s the tree, then I’d hope that the current occupants would afford it the same consideration as the original builders.

  • http://brooklynheightsblog.com Qfwfq

    Though the neighborhood ultimately might not have the right to decide, I think indirectly it is our business. Part of the charm of Brooklyn Heights, at least for me, is the greenery — aside from the beauty of it all, the shade such trees provide help to cool off this area by a few degrees.

    Okay, maybe they don’t want to spend the $8k, but come on, they couldn’t get the city to foot the bill? Bloomberg announced in April of this year a massive initiative to improve quality of life, including the increase of greenspace in this city. They’re even offering to plant a tree on your block for free…surely $8k to save a tree would be nothing to them.

    The whole thing stinks. If this is a problem that can be solved without removing the tree, it should be.

  • Andrea

    At 145 Hicks Street there is an American Elm Tree about 80+ years old and 70′ tall. The Mansion House Board has voted (5-2) to cut the tree down without weighing all possibilities.

    First, we are extremely lucky to have an American Elm tree this old and this large still alive. There have been millions upon millions of American Elm trees cut down due to Dutch Elm Disease. So this tree has survived that and other circumstances that would effect this tree. Plus, trees give us so much in return from clean air, shade, creating a wonderful haven for wildlife, saving energy, keeping buildings cool and more. So here’s the story.

    Restoration work began last year and during that work it was discovered that a leak was occuring on both sides of the building (A side and B side). The major leak was coming through an electrical conduit which crossed over from the A side into the B side. It was determined that the roots from the Elm tree probably cracked or bent the conduit. Subsequently, there are leaks on the B side too. But Bartlett Tree Experts inspected the site and concluded that the roots from the Elm Tree did not cause the leaks on the B side.
    These leaks on the B side are not major and only occur when it’s raining or during watering of the garden (which will change because a watering system has been installed decreasing any water loss or puddling). Mind you this is a tree that has had continual care such as a fertilization program, regular pruning, large branches being cabled to prevent any problems and general inspections. So you see this tree has been taken care of, is in great condition and does not pose a threat. Plus, there were no liability issues until construction started.

    After three electrical proposals, the Board voted to cut the tree down so that waterproofing the foundation from the outside could occur.

    But we do have another alternative such as: having an independent electrician abandon the existing conduit, moving the cables up about 8 feet back towards the entrance of the building and at the end of the drip line of the tree and installing another conduit going across the garden into the B
    side electrical board. As for the leak on the A side the replacement and relocation the conduit back would ameliorate this leak. The leak on the B side is another
    story. To properly waterproof the leak it should be done on the outside thus cutting the Elm tree down which is up against the building. But we can waterproof from the inside and keep an eye on this. The leak is not major, very small actually but the Board is also afraid that the tree, since it has
    a natural lean over the street, will fall down and possibly injure or kill someone. (We do understand the Board’s fiduciary responsibility but in this situation we need to open our eyes and see the whole picture.) This is pure speculation – anything could happen to anyone just walking down the street. So the shareholders, neighbors and others are fighting to save the tree. There will be a meeting on Monday, July 30th at 8:00 p.m. in the lobby of the building to discuss all of the above. If anyone wants to sign a petition to save the American Elm tree (hard copy) please let me know. Thanks for listening.

    P.S. The cost of doing the above ranges between $8,000 to $16,000 give or take. Is it worth it to save an historic tree – you betcha!! We are fighting to the very end.

  • Idiot

    Well, the LPC apparently has no authority, but the spirit of landmarks law is supported by keeping the tree around. Also, ain’t nothing wrong with some political pressure.

    Phillys Dicker, you are named and shamed.

  • Satterfeld

    Ive seen a lot in my 66 years and now I’ve seen some more. Do you really believe the people in the building got out of bed one morning and said, let’s cut down the tree? I made a trip this morning with my dog to actually see what the hoo-ha was all about. This tree is perched precariously across Hicks Street. It lurches worse than I did as sailor on a Saturday night in port. It leans against the building and it stretches against the building across the street. Like have the neighbors across the street weighed in whether they think it’s a good idea to have a tree resting against their property? If they havent, they ought to get their lawyers on it right away. Did the Brooklyn Papers reporter talk to them? If you look up you can see that the tree is cabled together by steel cables. Maybe someone already decided that this tree was a possible danger. Last, if these people have leaks in their basement and they are in the foundation – any home owner can tell you – that’s a big deal! And any idiot that tells you that you can waterproff from the inside is fooling himself. If they can’t cure the leaks because the tree is in the way, and the tree has moved electrical conduits – I think that there is a lot left unsaid here.

  • eak

    Here’s information about the tree situation:
    The tree is an American Elm, ulmus americana. It is sometimes known as White Elm or American White Elm. It is an extremely hardy tree. Healthy potentially can live for hundreds of years.
    American Elms, especially beautiful mature trees like this one, are de facto endangered species, given the devastation caused by Dutch Elm Disease.

    The Board and others asked several experts to examine the tree, including Bartlett Tree Experts, Prospect Tree Service, landscape architects and others. All report that we have a very healthy tree. There is no sucker growth and no dead branches, and the tree has a healthy leaf canopy.

    John Kilcullen, who cared for the tree while working for Bartlett Tree Experts, estimates that the tree is approximately 80 years old – it can live up to 300 years

    According to Bartlett’s report (attached), “since the tree has reached its mature size, an increase in trunk and/or canopy size is unlikely.” Bartlett has provided pruning and cabling to preserve the canopy and support the tree’s crotch areas.
    Bartlett concludes its report with the following statement: “With the likelihood of imminent failure of the Mansion House Elm low, the tree can remain in the landscape.”

    Engineering studies completed for the Mansion House portico project indicate that the tree’s roots do not threaten the building. A landscape architect consulted on the matter notes that Elms do not have invasive water-seeking root systems, like red maples and other trees have, so it is not a threat to our foundation. Since the tree is so old and mature, any damage from it would have occurred by now.

    The portico architect notes that the tree is probably causing a leak where the electrical conduit enters the building by pressuring the conduit. Given the fact that the tree’s root system is not invasive, it probably has not contributed to other potential leaks.

    The best way to fix the conduit is to reroute it away from the tree. The Board has estimates from electrical contractors for this work, which the contractors say can be done readily. We can weather proof the building from inside to stop other potential leaks, instead of cutting into the trees roots and killing it.

    Rerouting the conduit and water proofing the leak from the inside and saving the tree is well worth the effort. The Board based its decision on financial analysis that credited the Elm itself with no value for the building or for the neighborhood. Omitting the value of the tree is simply incorrect analysis.

    The Elm’s value to the Mansion House and neighbors includes the following:
    • Water repellent. The tree’s canopy repels water from our building and from neighboring buildings, adding to the life of the building façade and to other buildings.
    • Water absorption. The tree’s root system absorbs rain water from the garden area, keeping if from pooling and from pressuring the foundation.
    • Energy savings. The tree’s canopy shades a large portion of the building’s B-side façade, reducing cooling expenses for all residents within its shade. It also helps reduce the temperature in the garden by several degrees below the sidewalk area, providing the “Mansion House welcome” that many appreciate.
    • CO2 reduction. As the Parks Department notes, trees remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Big trees like this one do it best.
    • Property value. The Parks Department and many other sources report on research that states that homes with trees in front sell for more money. Conceivably, the tree could add one percent to the value of our apartments. Assuming an average market value of $600,000 for the 108 apartments and a one percent market increase due to the tree, the tree adds $648,000 in value to Mansion House apartments as a whole.
    • Other value. The tree also helps absorb street noise and provides habitat for birds and other wildlife.

  • Rocco

    Dear Satterfeld, I’m so glad that you are a professional arborist – what would we do without people like you. Too bad you have not read the correct information. People making rash judgments like you can be extremely dangerous.

    Hope your dog does not pee on trees!

  • GHB

    I think that the shareholders need to elect a new board. They appear to be out of control, with the tree controversy just the latest fiasco. From what I hear, the shareholders are overwhelmingly against the removal. As a neighbor, I’m with them. The tree is in no more danger of falling than any other tree. It’s all about the 8K and a coop board run amok!

  • steve

    I live about a half block away from 145 Hicks St. and looking down from my living room window I can see that beautiful Elm tree. The news about the Mansion House board’s decision to cut it down is extremely troubling. From the details that have emerged in the above-posted comments, it is not entirely clear that all reasonable alternatives to such a drastic act of arborcide have been adequately weighed by the Mansion House board.

  • Bornhere

    If by “our,” you mean those of us who are neither board members nor residents of 145 Hicks but are residents in the Heights, the answer is “of course.” How not? This is not about some nondescript, seen-one-seen-’em-all tree — this is about a nearly iconic bit of greenery in the neighborhood. And this whole controversy is another example of what many of us have stumbled into in the purchase of a co-op: mismanagement on the part of co-op boards can easily lead to even more misguided decisions. “Fiats rock” is, I think, the motto of many a board. And for those of you who can stand some more Great Oz-like insights, read “resident’s” comment on “Buh Bye Big Elm Tree.” It’s from “an engineer.” Guess that’s the end of this debate.

  • guest

    I bet if the board decided to replace the tree with a courtyard of pink flamingos everyone would think it was their business

  • http://66squarefeet.blogspot.com Marie

    Trees like this give to our neighbourhood what the Board seems to lack: character, dignity, grace.

  • Sam

    If it were my property I would reluctantly agree to take it down. It is not growing in a park, or a forest, or an open lawn on a suburban estate, it is growing in the small ENTRANCE COURTYARD of an apartment building.
    Its biggest limbs lean over the sidewalk, they are already cabled together. The trunk is about eleven inches from the building facade. I sympathize with the folks on the board. unpaid, harangued, needing to make the tough decisions and criticized by people who are letting their emotions run amok. Folks in crowded, noisy, urban neighborhoods such as Brooklyn Heights can become totally irrational about things like this. A tree growing in someone else’s courtyard becomes symbolic of their aspirations to protect nature. Meanwhile a coop board who needs to protect the physical and fiscal well-being of their building are being pillaried as barbarians for making a rational, if difficult, decision.

  • residenté

    If the board will consider ALL reasonable options, with all relevant and correct information before them, and do so in conjunction with the majority of shareholders, then perhaps an equitable and reasonable decision will be made. Reason and respect must prevail. There are clearly fundamental questions about the judgment capabilities of the current board based on past matters which exacerbate this particular issue. This is a difficult situation for the residents of this building.

  • CJP

    This tree is going, going, going, gone. I walked by there this evening. I like trees. But as others on this board have indicated commonsense and responsibility compel the coop to make an unfortunate but realist choice: chop the tree. Bye bye tree. Make like a tree and…

  • Vishnu Jones

    cjp – any board that’s a quarter of a million or more over budget on a product is clearly into some kind of horticulture most likely of the wacky tobbacky kind. i wouldn’t be trusting their common sense as you suggest.

  • Barbara

    This board has lost their credibility with most of the tenants due to the overun on the portico project and the lack of result and completion of that project.
    If in fact the decision to cut down the tree is not final, and the shareholders do have a say – which is generally not the case in coop living – you elect the board and they make decisions for better or worse (usually worse) – then the board needs to present the alternatives with costs of each.
    I agree that no one wakes up and says – think I will cut down a tree that has outlived most of our parents.
    It is unfair to ask the tenants to make a reasoned decision without knowing the financial impact of the choices.
    Lacking the cost factor of the alternatives, decisions can only be emotional – and the choice of saving a tree versus paying your mortgage and the endless assessments for cost overruns – would lead me, as a long-time shareholder to choose my financial well-being over that of the tree.
    I hope all this publicity will lead the board to do it’s job and give the shareholders the information they need to make an educated decision.
    I want to save the tree without committing myself to a financial obligation I cannot meet.
    Lastly, if the tree is the neighborhood icon it appears to be, perhaps a fund can be created to subsidize the costs of saving the tree which contributes immeasureably to the entire neighborhood.
    Are shareholders going to chain themselves to the tree? I can’t imagine that is a road any of us want to go down and I pray it does not come to that.

  • Dumbo

    What this says, loud and clear (and this applies to all who live in condos and co-ops, alike) is that the people who sit on boards of buildings are far from expert . . . at anything. A recent letter in the NY Times real estate section addressed this when a long-time co-op resident who took little interest in building elections, upon meeting the board president, discovered this long-time elected board member was a dolt. It concerned him. Where I live, in Dumbo, it’s the same. These people stand up and contend that they are lawyers or real estate professionals or money managers. Time proves out — over and over and over — that these are self-interested, frugal, small-minded control freaks who are, as one fellow-resident recently commented, “can’t see the nose in front of their face.” It’s regrettable and, quite literally, in the case of this lovely tree, a crying shame.

  • long term resident

    I must comment on this issue that has now spread far beyond our building. There is mention of only an $8000 differential between doing it the way the Board has elected after prolonged investigation into this matter, and another choice, which isn’t really a choice at all. This figure is completely untrue! Do you really think that anyone in this building wants to bring down a tree if there was a viable alternative? After months and months of expert opinions, the Board was left with but one choice. Are you aware of the reason that necesitates the removal of the tree? Do you know of the leaks in out basement that are destroying out electrical service to literally one whole side of this building? Do you know that this problem can’t be properly fixed without removing the tree so that access to the exterior of the wall that the tree abuts can be obtained? It is so very easy for those outsiders who are poorly informed, to jump to emotional conclusions, when the situation doesn’t directly affect them in anyway.

    You make threats of the arrival of the New York Times to our home. This will be a private meeting for shareholders only, just as this sort of meeting would be in any Co-op, for any reason.

    A membership of seven is the norm in buildings of our size. Do you know anything about Co-op living? You say that “you are missing something”. The only thing you are missing are the facts!

    For you to single out a wonderful neighbor, and dedicated member of the board such as Phyllis Dicker is totally unfair. She is a woman of great integrity and honesty. Her comment that you quote, was absolutely proper, and to indicate otherwise, is editorializing, not reporting. Once again, if you had bothered to learn the facts, you would have never included your remarks about her, which border on defamation. You should be ashamed of yourself for such poor reporting, and for stirring up a hornet’s nest simply for the sake of looking to cause trouble.

    We will meet on Monday evening. We wil hear all the facts. We will discuss the issues. We will probably argue a bit, because we usually tend to do that. But at the end, we will leave as neighbors. Some of us will not be happy with the ultimate decision, but we will abide by it, and the good life at the Mansion House will continue.

  • residenté

    Barbara has expressed the difficult issue perfectly. One bases one’s trust in the board’s judgment on past decisions. When the matter at hand has the complexity, and moral implications, of the issue with the tree, it is crucial that the board move thoughtfully and thoroughly. Objective viewpoints, from outsiders, would be really helpful in this case. Anyone out there with similar experience, as a building owner, tree-lover, tree-care professional?

  • T.K. Small

    Generally speaking I stand on the side of property rights, but this afternoon I rolled around the corner to take a look at the tree, and discovered that this is an absolutely magnificent specimen. It might actually be the biggest tree in our neighborhood. Without knowing how many apartments are in the building, the board could assess a minor tree fee and perhaps ask for a contribution from Markowitz and/or the Brooklyn Heights Association. If there is any kind of fund-raising effort to save the tree I would contribute something.

  • Rocco

    Just a bit of information,

    If we did not have trees we would not be able to live on this planet. We are extremely lucky to have an American Elm tree. Millions and millions were cut down because of the Dutch Elm Disease. This tree was spared.

    This tree helps us breathe by taking in carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone and other poisons from the air. It then returns large amounts of pure oxygen to the atmosphere which enables us to breathe. In one year, a large tree, like this one, produces enough oxygen to fill 800 houses.

    It shades our building and is a natural air conditioner.

    It makes soil and protects soil.

    It protects our courtyard from flooding by having all the roots from the tree soak up the water.

    It turns down the volume, making the neighborhood quieter.

    It releases as much as 300 to 400 gallons of moisture into the air each day.

    It provides housing, food and protection for wildlife.

    This tree is healthy because of a regular pruning schedule, fertilization programs, safety cabling and inspections on a yearly basis.

    This tree has a monetary value of about $60,000 to $70,000. Which appraisers now consider to be extremely important. With the tree gone the property value will decrease thus each apartment’s value will decrease.

    It’s historic and it is a survivor.

    As for the leaks we have not exhausted all the alternatives. There are certain measures that can be taken to ameliorate the leaks and save the tree.

    Yes people are important but when they do not have all the facts and make such a judgment they become dangerous. We may not be able to control the war but we can save this bit history for a tree that will shade our children’s children and more. And a building can stand proud for making the right decision of saving this incredible tree.

  • xyz


  • member

    The misinformation in this blog and the Brooklyn Paper is mindboggling.

    The board has spend the better part of this past year obtaining expert opinions on how to save the tree and waterproof the leaking foundation wall next to the tree. We have been told by several experts that waterproofing must be done from the outside. We have also been told by the tree experts that we cannot dig near the tree or its roots lest we risk damaging the tree. Therein lies the problem.

    We would happily reroute the electrical conduit it that would solve the problem, but it does not.

    Patching the leaks from the inside makes not sense. That is like patching and painting over a leak in your ceiling, but not patching the leak in the roof. Silly.

    Some bright star on the blog said the basement only leaks when it rains or the garden is watered. Mmmmm only when there is water around. Wonder why?

    The renovation project was not originally budgeted at $150,000 and its current cost is not $400,000. Those numbers are totally false. One person is spreading these false numbers to discredit the board, but that person has been on the renovation committee since the beginning, so if it has been mismanaged (and I do not think it has), then that person is to blame also. The real numbers are the business of the shareholders, and no one else.

  • http://i12.photobucket.com/albums/a242/magarmor/teesorama/madeinbrooklynsm.jpg MadeInBrooklyn

    Brooklyn Heights gets more and more depressing as each day goes by…