Photographs by Diana Shaman



When Elaine Witschger looked out of her window one morning last month, she spotted a man with what looked like a mobile measuring device wheeling it along the sidewalk in front of her 81st Avenue house. She ran down to see what was going on just as he began spray-can painting green letters and numbers on the concrete.

“He was very polite,” she said. He explained that he worked for the City of New York which was looking for potential sites at which to locate bioswales, and if the grassy strip between her sidewalk and the street met all the necessary criteria, it could be chosen.

A bioswale, bluntly put, is a drainage ditch typically five feet deep, five feet wide and 20 feet long. Locations in the city’s outer boroughs are typically on rights-of-way between the sidewalk and the street. The excavation is filled with rocks and special soil to allow maximum rainwater infiltration. Two curb cuts allow water to flow in and out. The city claims about 2,000 will be built in the outer boroughs but there could be many more.

The idea is to collect storm water and divert it away from drains and sewers thereby reducing the burden on infrastructure and subsequently improving water quality in surrounding waterways which absorb stormwater outlets.

Bioswales are gaining popularity around the country as a cheaper as well as aesthetic solution to mitigating storm water runoff. In New York City, the so-called Green Infrastructure Contingency Plan is being spearheaded by the city’s Department of Environmental Protection.

The DEP, which is working in partnership with the Department of Design and Construction and the parks department likes to refer to bioswales as “rain gardens,” because the idea is to plant trees inside them, surround them on three sides with low and attractive iron grill fences to protect the trees, and to landscape them with plants that will make them desirable green spaces that enhance the city’s streetscapes.

However, the prospect of having a bioswale in front of her 81st Avenue house was not welcome news for Ms. Witschger. Her concern was that not only would digging up the area jeopardise her underground utility lines as well as underground water sprinklers, but that the bioswale could also become an eyesore. She only has to walk across the street and down toward Kew Gardens Road to see two bioswales that were installed earlier this year in front of Numbers 112 and 114 81st Avenue.. Far from being “rain gardens,” they are barren ditches containing newly-planted but sad-looking trees. The fence enclosure has become a container for garbage.

Ms. Witschger is not alone in her concerns. Following an outcry from a number of his constituents about proposed bioswales, “I’m leading the fight against them,” said State Senator Tony Avella, Democrat of Bayside, who along with State Assemblyman Michael Simanowitz, Democrat of Kew Gardens and Flushing, has invited civic associations and civic leaders to a meeting at his offices later this month to discuss the situation.

“It’s a huge project that’s going to cost $1 billion and that’s going to create a major headache for everyone,” Mr. Avella said. “I am asking the city to re-evaluate what it’s doing, or at the very least to allow a homeowner to opt out if they don’t want a bioswale in front of their home.” He suggested the city should just build better sewers “instead of coming up with this stupid plan.”

In Kew Gardens, four more locations on 81st Avenue between Austin Street and Kew Gardens Road have green markers to indicate they are potential sites for bioswales. There is little a homeowner can do to prevent the installation because the area between property lines and the street is city property.

The city does have safeguards in place. “We are required by law to call before we dig,” said Kurt Findeisen, safety supervisor at the city’s Department of Design and Construction, which is in charge of the design process for bioswales.

Excavations have to avoid any utility lines. Additionally, borings have to be made to test soil quality to make sure it has good drainage. Bioswales must be located five feet away from the driveway, so the city’s Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over streets, also becomes part of the approvals process. Parking is a concern because a bioswale can make exiting a car more difficult. The parks department is in charge of landscaping, which is supposed to be installed in the spring and fall. Maintenance, however, is a murky area for which there is no established policy and it has become another bone of contention.

“One size does not fit all,” said Dominick Pistone, President of the Kew Gardens Civic Association, referring to the five-foot setback from driveways. In a narrow street homeowners may have to enter their driveway at an angle so that five feet may not be enough and that distance should not be set in stone, he said.

On the plus side, bioswales can help prevent flooding when downpours overtax the sewer system, and that’s a good thing, he added. “Cooperation between the city and homeowners is the key.”

Murray H. Berger, the civic association’s Executive Chairman, voiced a similar opinion. “Basically, the education process could be very much improved,” he said.

The garbage concerns, the parking, and other issues can be coped with, but if the city were to create a “partnership” with involved homeowners, he suggested, the whole bioswale issue could be more easily resolved.

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