Sidewalk solution to save a heritage elm

December 18, 2010

By Penny Cherubino

Since last May, a group of neighbors has worked to save a heritage elm on Marlborough Street near Fairfield. This is one of the original trees planted when the neighborhood was created about 125 years ago.

Over the years, the roots of this magnificent tree had buckled the brick sidewalk, and The Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay (NABB) was receiving complaints about the condition. In response, NABB and the Garden Club of the Back Bay joined forces to look for solutions that would allow the tree to remain in place.

Signs were posted on the elm announcing a community meeting about the situation. In mid-May, more than 20 residents met with Margaret Pokorny of the Garden Club and Sue Prindle of NABB to review a proposal to replace the heaving bricks with a brick-colored macadam mixture that would provide a clearer passage around the tree and eliminate the need to remove it.

“Frank O’Brien of the City Department of Public Works, William Young of the Back Bay Architectural Commission, Steve Spinetto, City of Boston Commissioner of Disabilities, and Tom Hopkins of the state Architectural Access Board were most helpful in expediting the approval process, as was Michelle Snyder of Councilor Ross’s office,” said Prindle. “However, dotting all those i’s required a good deal of time and effort, which delayed the project over the summer. James Paradis, who exercised considerable patience while we contemplated tearing up the sidewalk in front of his home, deserves our thanks.”

Pokorny echoed thanks to these individuals and organizations and noted that before the Garden Club took responsibility for the Dutch Elm Disease inoculation of this street tree, Paradis had paid for this important annual protection on his own.

Neighbors also have several firms to thank for donations of time and materials to make this trial possible. Pokorny explained that Paul Fulmore of Riverside Asphalt Services, in Hyde Park was an admirer of the late Parks Commissioner Justine Liff and had offered to do something like this in her honor. He donated his time, skill, expertise, and materials needed to create the new sidewalk section. He even found a brick-colored stone that allows the new surface to visually blend with the rest of the block.

Other businesses stepped forward to donate everything needed to complete this walkway. CKI Design Studios provided a drawing suitable for the Access Board. John Lippolis of J. W. Masonry removed the brick and prepared the site. And, Jim Kelley, of Cambridge Landscape, Inc. supplied mulch to finish off the area.

The result of this work is a gently-curved, macadamized pathway over the roots. Pokorny explained that unlike a brittle asphalt surface that would crack when stressed, macadam is made from layers of tar and stone and should have more flexibly. It will also be easier to maintain and repair and is water-permeable allowing rain and snow to be absorbed into the ground water.

This surface is better known as tarmac. It is famous as the surface that was used as landing strips on airfields. The word tarmac is an abbreviation of its components tar and macadam. Three layers were used in this project and additional layers could be added if needed in the years ahead. The loose stone top visible today will be removed once the lower layers have cured.

“We will watch the installation over the winter and hope that it can provide a prototype for other problem areas, so that we can retain our large and healthy street trees without inconvenience to pedestrians. Anyone who would like to comment, is urged to email the NABB office at,” Prindle said.

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