Tree-pit confusion pits neighbors versus restaurant

By Muneeza Iqbal

Tensions have recently flared between West Village residents and the owner of the new French restaurant Lyon, who has been trying to get a sidewalk cafe, much to his neighbors’ chagrin.

The dispute started late last fall when residents noticed that an old tree on the sidewalk on W. 13th St. just off Greenwich Ave. had been chopped down and accused the restaurant of doing it. Francois Latapie, Lyon’s owner, claimed ignorance.

“One day I came to work and it wasn’t there and I wondered why they had done that,” Latapie said of the tree, speaking last week.

According to Philip Abramson, a Parks Department spokesperson, the ginkgo had been deemed dead and was removed by the city.

However, Latapie went on to remove the stump and pave over the tree pit. And to further anger the residents, he removed the aesthetic Belgian blocks ringing the tree pit, which had been paid for and placed there many years ago by the block association. The law, however, does not prohibit the removal of a dead tree stump by a citizen, or the cementing over of an empty tree pit.

Lise Esdaile, a former community board member who lives right above the restaurant, thinks Latapie is removing part of the neighborhood’s history and beauty.

Latapie defends his action by saying that the neighbors were using this area in front of his restaurant — including the empty tree pit — to dump their garbage after the trash basket on the street corner went missing after a storm. The neighbors, in turn, accuse Latapie of removing the garbage can to make his restaurant more appealing, an accusation he denies.

Many think Latapie is merely trying to make the area better suited for his restaurant. His proposal to add a sidewalk cafe was recently approved. Had the tree, or at least the tree pit, still been there, he would never have gotten the approval because there wouldn’t have been sufficient sidewalk space for pedestrians, according to Bob Gormley, Community Board 2 district manager.

Ron Ottaviano, who lives in an apartment above the restaurant, claims that no one in the building wants a sidewalk cafe because it would become a nuisance for this residential neighborhood. The restaurant itself is loud and already very disruptive for its neighbors, he charged.

“I, for one, don’t want a cafe under my 3-year-old’s bedroom,” he said. “Latapie is the highest rent payer, so the landlord was O.K.’ing everything he wanted and not paying attention to us.”

Residents complain that the restaurant’s diners already smoke on the sidewalk outside their windows, as well as chat loudly till late into the night. They fear it will only worsen when Lyon’s sidewalk cafe opens up.

In a close vote, C.B. 2 narrowly gave its advisory approval to the sidewalk cafe application.

However, Latapie has promised to have the city replace the tree that died and was removed. Unfortunately, it takes weeks for the replacement tree to be planted, so residents have assumed he is not going to do it. Latapie also promised in a letter to the City Council that he will put back the Belgian blocks, but sink them into the ground, as opposed to letting them jut out and obstruct pedestrians’ way. He hopes this will please the residents, as well as letting his sidewalk cafe flourish.

“I have a country house. I plant trees, I love trees!” Latapie said. A sign on his restaurant’s window informs the residents that he wants to be a good neighbor and carry on his work peacefully.

The Parks Department only automatically replaces trees in locations where it feels there is a dire need of vegetation. The street corner around the restaurant did not meet that requirement — there are several other trees there — and until a request for a new tree was submitted a month ago, according to Ambramson, the city didn’t plan to do anything about it. Outside contractors are in charge of planting the new tree and removing the dead stump, unless it is more than 36 inches in diameter, which is rarely the case in Manhattan.

However, C.B. 2 last month passed a resolution that called for replacement sidewalk trees being planted more rapidly when trees are removed. A survey of 20 percent of the district by high school interns found about 80 empty tree pits.

The resolution asks for trees to be replaced within a set time frame, unlike in the past, where months could pass before the new tree was planted. The 311 hot line can be used to make tree replacement orders. C.B. 2 feels that if too many trees go missing and the tree pits remain empty for too long, residents may be discouraged from asking for replacements because they would feel that it’s useless.

Empty tree pits also pose a risk to pedestrians. Some people, like Latapie, might take it upon themselves to pave over an empty tree pit, hence removing any evidence that there was once a tree there that might have needed replacement.

The C.B. 2 resolution also suggests that single contractors be given the responsibility of removing the stump, as well as replacing the tree, to improve efficiency.