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A grand banyan tree, with roots deep in what used to be a sidewalk and branches towering over homes, grows on the perimeter of a condominium complex east of downtown Honolulu.
Its exact age is unknown, but residents who have lived in the 965 Prospect complex for more than 40 years say that it was there when they moved in. It recently seemed destined for the chopping block over safety concerns after months of back and forth between the city and the condo association.
But the efforts of condo residents and others through a petition drive have saved it after the association ultimately decided to pay to have the tree trimmed instead of cut down, with the support of the city officials who had been insisting action be taken.
Residents of 965 Prospect were distraught after receiving a letter from their property manager, Gordon Heinicke of Touchstone Properties, saying the tree was scheduled to be removed July 23. Even though the notice was dated June 26, building manager Bobbie Aquino said some residents didn’t hear about it until as late as last week.
Aquino and another resident, Loryn Guiffre, were so upset they said they would chain themselves to the banyan to save it.
Guiffre, whose parents own the unit she’s been living in for the last 12 years, feared the removal of the landmark tree would “jeopardize our property value and just the aesthetic of the neighborhood.”
A petition opposing the tree’s removal was quickly initiated by residents. Heinicke reported in an email to Ross Sasamura, Honolulu Department of Facility Maintenance director and chief engineer, that approximately 80 percent of 965 Prospect residents signed the petition.
Nonresidents also joined the effect, raising the signature total to more than 80, Aquino said.
Ikaika Hussey, a candidate for City Council District 6, was one of those nonresidents. He said he went door to door in the neighborhood with volunteers from his campaign to talk to people about the tree.
“Holding on to things as simple as an old tree are actually very symbolic of our desire to keep a Hawaii that is familiar to us and that is home,” Hussey said.
Heinicke sent the petition to Sasamura via email Monday, and asked if the association could still trim the tree instead of removing it. Sasamura agreed as long as the work took place by July 23.
Aquino said she cried when she found out that the tree would be spared.
“What it showed me, as a person who has never done this, is that if you believe in something and you want something bad enough, and if you pull together, things can get done,” Aquino said.
Efforts to save trees in Honolulu are not unusual.
During construction of the new International Marketplace in Waikiki that opened in 2016, the developers insisted on keeping the large banyan tree that now serves as the focal point of the shopping center. And just this year, Manoa community groups and the Outdoor Circle put together a petition to preserve nine monkeypods in Manoa, which were to be cut down for improvements at Manoa Marketplace.
The original plan to remove the tree at the condo complex was formulated by the building association’s board of directors, AOAO 965 Prospect, after it was pressured by the facility maintenance department to address safety hazards.
Concerns about the tree were first expressed in January when Sasamura sent a letter to the complex saying that the tree’s branches had grown over the city right-of-way and crossed over neighboring property, and demanding that it be trimmed or removed.
Months of back-and-forth communication between the city and the condo association ensued. At one point, the association grew convinced that removing the tree would be the most cost-effective thing to do.
A final letter from Sasamura was sent June 22 noting that no action had been taken by the building and that the city was going to remove the tree at an estimated cost of $49,000 to $58,500.
The board then decided to schedule removal of the tree for July 23, feeling pressured for time and money.
“You should have seen us at the board meeting,” said Melissa Sprecher, 965 Prospect resident and association board member. “Everybody just felt really down having to make the decision, just really low.”
But due to the efforts of community members to save the tree, the association will move forward instead with trimming by July 23, with the city’s approval.
“I feel so empowered,” said Guiffre. “I feel like there’s power in speaking up and raising your voice. And if you see something in your community that you think is wrong or you disagree with, speak up because the grassroots efforts in this case saved that tree.”
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