Hills & Gardens: Drainage Plan Resisted

By Trudy Whitman

Growing out of a comprehensive study of Boerum Hill’s street trees, a pilot program to enhance tree health while capturing street runoff has been envisioned by members of the tree study group.

A. Kristen Austin, a local landscape designer, and Samuel A. Bishop, education director for Trees New York, presented their ideas for retrofitting sidewalks and tree pits on two blocks of Hoyt Street between Atlantic and Dean to those attending a meeting of the Hoyt Street Association on February 6 at the Hopkins Center. Austin and Bishop explained that the goal was to obtain a 2012 Green Infrastructure Grant funded by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. To do that they would first have to obtain permission from Hoyt Street property owners, but the reaction at the meeting to the proposal was less than enthusiastic.

Austin and Bishop outlined a two-birds-with-one-stone concept to community members. In addition to nurturing street trees, the plan would reduce combined sewer overflows, or CSOs, that course into the Gowanus Canal. During heavy rain and snow melt incidents, which occur about once a week according to Austin, our sewer system becomes overwhelmed, and street runoff combined with raw sewage flows directly into the canal. (This is the same problem dlandstudio’s proposed Sponge Park test site at 2nd Street is designed to address and the conundrum that DEP would like solutions for.)

The presenters’ PowerPoint showed enlarged tree beds filled with layers of absorbent materials (mulch, designed soil, and coarse sand), curb cuts that allow water to flow to the beds, permeable sidewalk pavers, and a cistern and piping system installed under the street capable of releasing stored storm water to trees during dry periods.

A primary requirement of the Green Infrastructure program is the approval by abutting property owners for any changes. Those permissions Austin and Bishop clearly would not have received if they had canvassed those at the meeting after their presentation.

The homes on the two targeted blocks of Hoyt Street were built in the 1840s with stone foundations, one audience member noted. Many owners are already battling wet basements as it is, and permeable sidewalks could only exacerbate this problem, he said. All who commented after the presentation shared the first speaker’s opinion.

In an email exchange after the meeting, Margaret Cusack, who heads the Hoyt Street Association, wrote that she understands that “the issues of water runoff mixing with sewage is not healthy for our environment and that our street trees would be healthier if the water runoff were to be used to water our parched tree pits.” She added, however, that she agrees with her neighbors in believing that “this plan poses a threat to the foundations of our homes,” and that the consensus “will make it just about impossible to get the approval of homeowners. Also, the deadline [the DEP grant deadline is February 15] is not at all realistic to work out the existing problems in the plan.”

Cusack suggested that the water retention idea might be better suited for “communities that are in the planning stages of home construction.”

In a telephone conversation after the meeting, Kristin Austin characterized the neighbors’ reaction as “disappointing.” The next step is to “rethink the plan,” she continued, adjusting it to community needs. While the details are tweaked, her group might apply to another agency for a grant or just hope that DEP renews their program for 2013, allowing more time for research and community input and education.

It is important “to have tried” to address this important problem now, Austin concluded, and to have “laid the groundwork” for future successful efforts.

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One of the establishments that changed the complexion of a formerly unremarkable stretch of Court Street has packed up its pies. Sweet Melissa opened at 276 Court Street in1998, serving sweets and light fare, and expanded in 2008, adding ice cream to its list of treats. In 2006, the same year that it launched a shop on 7th Avenue in Park Slope, Sweet Melissa won a Zagat Award for its tarts and pies.

The February 7 issue of The New York Times quotes proprietor Melissa Murphy as saying that the shop closed due to an insupportable rent hike. Murphy added that her efforts will now be concentrated in Park Slope