I received an alarmed call on Thursday from Kakaako resident Sharon Moriwaki  saying, “They are cutting down the trees. They are cutting down the monkey pod trees.”

Moriwaki had been sending me emails since last month to say that she and members of the group Kakaako United were pleading with developer Alexander & Baldwin to spare four large monkey pod trees at the old CompUSA site on Ala Moana Boulevard.

That’s where A & B, Inc., is building a high-rise residential development it calls The Collection.

Moriwaki’s call got me interested in finding out if the major landowners in Kakaako are making an effort to preserve mature trees inside or on the edges of their development properties.

Kakaako trees

The Howard Hughes Corp. relocated 25 trees from Ward Village to Kewalo basin and Kolowalu Park.

Courtesy: Howard Hughes Corp.

Some Honolulu residents started worrying about the loss of mature shade trees earlier this year after the developers of the residential project called Park Lane Ala Moana located at Ala Moana Center on the corner of Ala Moana and Piikoi Street cut down 26 healthy  monkey pod  trees.

Marti Townsend, executive director of the Outdoor Circle, says mature shade trees are “valuable to us in more ways than we know but unfortunately there is no legal handle we can use to force a private property owner to retain trees.”

Townsend, who is an attorney, says mature trees not only make us feel good, they capture carbon, soften glare and keep us cool.  And they are difficult to replace because they take a long time to grow.

Dr. Jeremy Lam, president of the Outdoor Circle’s Manoa branch, said “when more and more of Oahu is being cemented over from property line to property line, it is important to save existing trees. There has to be a balance.”

I decided to ask Kakaako’s major landowners about how many existing trees they planned to preserve, relocate or cut down in their development projects.

Landowners Kamehameha Schools, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the Howard Hughes Corp. and Alexander & Baldwin all responded to my inquiries.

As it turns out, Alexander &Baldwin cut down one monkey pod tree on the day community activist Moriwaki called me in great distress.

A & B says it has plans to cut down two of the four mature monkey pod trees on its property because the trees are in the way of construction.

One of the trees has to be removed because it sits in the only part of the property a tower crane can be placed for construction of a new residential high-rise.

A &B says it is impossible to spare the two trees by relocating them to another area because of their size and branch structure. It says the other two mature monkey pod trees will remain on the site.

The company says the wood from the monkey pod trees that have been chopped down will be “repurposed,” which is developer-ese for turning the deceased trees into furniture and wood bowls.

A & B Properties senior vice president for development,  Rick  Stack, says the company consulted with the Outdoor Circle and arborist Steve Nimz before moving forward to remove the two trees.

Both Nimz and Outdoor Circle executive director Townsend say they had no objection to the removal.  Nimz says the trees were about 20 years old and not of historic importance.

Both Townsend and Nimz said they were okay with the demise of the two trees because A & B showed them landscaping plans with almost two times more trees than were on the property before.

I decided to ask Kakaako’s major landowners about how many existing trees they planned to preserve, relocate or cut down in their development projects.

Nimz, a taciturn man not given to excitement, says “I had not expected what I saw. I thought there would be a minimal amount of landscaping around the project. The trees and landscaping they are planning makes the property four times better than it was before.  I was incredibly impressed.”

Landscape architect Steve Mechler, the chairman of the Outdoor Circle’s Tree Committee,  also saw A & B’s landcape plan for The Collection development and was impressed.

But Mechler says no matter what developers show in their plans, it is up to community activists and the Outdoor Circle to band together to make sure the developers follow through with their promises of increasing trees and plants on their  properties.

A & B says it owns only two sites in Kakaako and that The Collection site is the only Kakaako property that had  trees on it when it was purchased.

The company says it planted more than 40 trees on its other Kakaako property, the Waihonua condominium on Waimanu Street.

A & B says it does not have a policy on preserving existing trees in any of its projects. Stack says the company consults with a licensed arborist for each development. He says “we evaluate and prepare a treatment plan for existing trees on a case-by-case basis because the circumstances are different for each development site.”

Kamehameha Schools owns 29 acres in Kakaako spread over nine city blocks.

Erin Kinney, the marketing manager for Kamehameha Schools’ developments in Kakaako, says construction officials have identified 37 trees on two blocks that are part of the first construction phase.

“A few of the trees are native kou trees, while a majority are immature or non-native species, such as autograph and pink tecoma trees,” she said via email. “Non-native trees will be considered for replacement with native species.”

Kamehameha Schools, like Alexander & Baldwin, assesses trees on a case-by-case basis. “We determine if existing trees are retained or relocated based on their health, size, age and species,” says Kinney. She says when it comes to planting trees their preference is to use native species.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs owns 30 acres of Kakaako property makai of Ala Moana Boulevard. OHA’s chief operating officer, Kawika Burgess, said in an emailed statement that most of the Kakaako land the state transferred to OHA in 2012 has very little landscaping,  including trees.

Burgess says no existing trees have been cut down. But he did not say how many trees are standing on OHA’s  30 acres in Kakaako.

He says when OHA moves forward and starts to develop its 10 Kakaako Makai parcels, it will prioritize landscaping with indigenous plants and trees.

Burgess says “as a Native Hawaiian organization, we believe that preserving our natural resources and the use of appropriate trees and plants is very important to preserving a Hawaiian sense of place in Kakaako Makai.”

The Howard Hughes Corp. owns 60 acres in Kakaako where it is planning to build up to 22 high rises.

In a series of emails, Howard Hughes Corp. says it intends to dramatically increase the number of trees for its major development called the Ward Village.

This information came from Rachel Ross, who works for the Bennet Group, which handles public relations for the Howard Hughes Corp.

Ross says the team working on the Ward Village will preserve existing large, healthy trees on the development sites whenever possible.

She says when trees have to be removed to make way for construction; they will be relocated as was done recently with 25 mature trees that were moved from the residential development site known as Waiea.

Waiea  is a residential tower at 1118 Ala Moana Blvd. where one bedroom apartments start at more than $1 million and the penthouse is listed for $20 million.

Ross says trees at Waiea were successfully uprooted in April and moved to Kewalo Basin and Kolowalu Park.

“It is very unpleasant to walk in that community now.” — Marti Townsend, Outdoor Circle

Howard Hughes Corp. also relocated a banyan tree that was in the middle of its planned Anahea residential tower on Auahi Street at the former site of Pier 1 Imports.

The banyan was moved last week to Waialae Elementary Charter School, where it now sits in the school’s courtyard.

Ross was not able to offer any numbers on how many existing mature trees are standing on the 60-acre Ward Village development and how many will be retained, relocated or cut down.

Townsend of the Outdoor Circle says that although it is unable to stop a private landowner from cutting down trees, it can urge the landowner to make concessions to the public as it did when the Kobayashi Group, the MacNaughton Group and General Growth removed the 26 monkey pod trees to make way for the Park Lane Ala Moana development.

The developers were unable to relocate the 26 trees but they donated $150,000 toward tree planting and other improvements at Ala Moana Beach Park.

They also promised to plant new native trees on the development property and they donated wood from the 26 trees that were cut down to craftsmen and and community groups for woodworking projects.

Townsend says in Kakaako there is no question that more shady, tree-filled space is needed and the Outdoor Circle will keep urging developers to create more of it.  Since there is very little public park space in the area, the green space is going to have to come from private owners incorporating it into their projects.

“It is very unpleasant to walk in that community now,” she says.  “More green space and shady trees must be provided to make the urban experience bearable.”

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