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Volunteers Upset Over Lack Of Communication With Parks Department Over Pelham Parkway Park Changes

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) - Some residents in the Bronx say the city is shutting them out of a plan that shapes the future of one of the borough's most popular parks.

This comes after dozens of healthy trees were chopped down.

As CBS2's Lisa Rozner reports, watching an oak tree go through a slow, forced death was painful for the volunteer group Friends of Pelham Parkway Park.

Last year, the Parks Department removed more than 70 trees like it from the two mile-plus greenway, to make way for a road project.

Parks said those trees were worth nearly $2 million, but it would try to replant ones of similar monetary value.

"Disturbing. It's very disturbing," said Pelham Parkway resident Gwenneth Turner.

"A lot of older people, they love to come here," said Pelham Parkway resident Juan Morales.

"My kids like to play, they ride their bikes," said Belen Benvais.

Over the years we've shown residents spend countless hours cleaning up trash, beautifying the space and chasing away illegal barbecues. So it's no surprise they wanted a seat at the table in the city's replanting plan.

"What's going to happen to the future generations?" said 17-year-old Stephanie Ramos.

The group's founder Roxanne Delgado says last February there was one heated meeting, but ever since, her repeated requests to meet with the Parks Department forestry team have been ignored.

"It hurts me because this community stood up for this parkway, and they fought for this parkway during COVID-19. They cleaned up, they did beautification," Delgado said. "Even when they're suffering, they had no income, they had no jobs, family members were dying, and they were still here caring for the parkway and this is how they treat our volunteers."

Late last week, the city finally gave Delgado the final plan, then told her a few days ago that starting this week, the first of 300-plus trees will be planted, with more going on the north side, which suffered the most tree loss, and where there's low income housing.

Delgado says she's upset no native trees will be planted in front of low income housing when houses across the parkway will see those kinds of trees.

Parks says it will plant 209 native trees on Pelham parkway, the majority of the total 332 trees being planted.  221 will go on the north side and 121 on the south side.

"They're going to be smaller trees providing less shade," said Councilman Fernando Cabrera. "We need trees. Trees especially in the Bronx where we have such a high asthma rate."

"Native trees do well where they belong. They require less resources," Delgado said.

Rozner asked the Parks Department how it decided which trees would go where. No one would speak on camera but a spokesperson did send an email, sharing a February letter to Delgado which said locations are based on historic design and site conditions.

For instance, Japanese zelkovas are "excellent street trees… resistant to drought, high winds and air pollution," while native elm trees are more susceptible to disease.

Two experts not affiliated with the project explained other potential factors.

"Below ground, what is the rooting volume? Do you have enough space for a larger tree, a smaller tree?" said New York Botanical Garden landscape project manager Deanna Curtis.

"What was native to this part of New York City back in the 1880s or 1850s may not be appropriate for today after all the development," said Rutgers University urban forestry Professor Jason Grabosky.

Some residents feel, appropriate or not, they're the ones spending their time here, so they deserved at least a conversation.

Cabrera says he's still trying to get a meeting with the Parks commissioner.

Ironically, last month the mayor launched an environmental justice initiative intended to make sure the community is part of the conversation for green space projects.

A Parks Department spokesperson says:

Pelham Parkway is an important historic landscape that we are working to preserve and restore in the midst of the large, multi-year critical infrastructure replacement project. Our ultimate goal is to provide a thriving tree canopy on both the north and south sides, consistent with the historic design of the Parkway, that will provide the entire, surrounding community with cleaner air, more shade, better water absorption and flood protection, and a host of other benefits for decades to come.

The spokesperson says Parks representatives "have attended multiple working group meetings, and have led multiple presentations on the original and amended tree planting plans—in 2020 and 2021."

He claims parks employees communicated directly via correspondence with several interested parties—in 2020 and 2021.

The planting is expected to last until 2023.

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