Denby Fawcett: The Honolulu Rail Project Has Destroyed Century-Old Shade Trees - Honolulu Civil Beat

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Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

The Outdoor Circle says many of the 92-year-old trees were supposed to be saved.

The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation has cut down kamani trees that are nearly 100 years old along Dillingham Boulevard to make way for the “mauka shift” of the fixed guideway rail system.

Last year the rail system’s alignment was shifted from the center of Dillingham Blvd. to the mauka side to save money by not  having to move certain utilities and  power lines.

Leaders of The Outdoor Circle, an environmental group that is itself more than 100 years old, say the removal of the trees took them by surprise. They had been informed that the trees on the mauka side would have to be cut down to accommodate the mauka shift but say they were assured that the trees on the makai side would be allowed to live.

“What is disturbing is we were not informed they were removing trees on both sides of the street. This is a total shock,” said Diane Harding, president of The Outdoor Circle.

People living near the Dillingham kamani trees were also surprised to find stumps where there once had been mature shade trees.

HART says six kamani trees on the makai side of Dillingham have been cut down and 21 kamani trees removed from the mauka side.

“They mutilated them. This is disgusting, horrible. It is not going to be a boulevard without the kamani trees,“ said Grayson Kauwe, who was surveying the damage on Sunday.

Kauwe, 33, has lived on Democrat Street in Kalihi all his life. He said he used to pass by the kamani trees every day when he walked through Oahu Community College to get to afterschool activities at Palama Settlement.

Residents are not the only ones to consider the trees valuable. In 2020, the Hawaii Historic Places Review Board placed the Dillingham kamani trees on the State Register of Historic Places.

Kamani trees were brought to Hawaii by the original Polynesian settlers. Their wood was used to create bowls and trays and for other building needs. Hawaiians also extracted dye from the kamani treesʻ small round nuts to color kapa cloth.

HART Deputy Project Director Vance Tsuda said in an email to Civil Beat the kamani trees on the makai side of Dillingham were always scheduled for removal.

“The 2010 Final Environmental Impact Statement for Honolulu High-Capacity Transit Corridor Project disclosed that 28 true kamani trees would be removed from the makai side of Dillingham. Pursuant to the environmental re-evaluation that was recently conducted due to modifications to the alignment, fewer true kamani trees were removed from the makai side,” wrote Tsuda.

But Outdoor Circleʻs Harding said that was not their understanding at all. She said at an online meeting with HART on Jan. 12, “We were specifically told by HART the makai trees would stay in place, given that the rail corridor was being shifted to the mauka side of Dillingham.”

She says  the makai trees were scheduled for removal when rail was going to go down the center of Dillingham Boulevard which allowed all the mauka trees to remain in place.

Winston Welch, Executive Director of The Outdoor Circle stands by what remains of a 90 yr old Monkey-pod tree on Dillingham Blvd.
Winston Welch, executive director of The Outdoor Circle, was shocked to find out that Honolulu rail workers cut down numerous 92-year-old kamani trees along Dillingham Boulevard. HART took down the trees to make way for relocation of power lines. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The Outdoor Circle said it was disappointed that the mauka trees would have to go because they were more beautiful than the heavily pruned makai trees but they reluctantly agreed and were comforted to know at least the makai trees would be saved.

Now large swaths of Dillingham Boulevard are denuded on both sides. Holes and tree stumps dot the sides of the road where there was once a corridor of greenery. To be clear, Dillingham was never a place of beauty but the trees helped soften it.

“Whatʻs left is a barren ugly streetscape. This could be a treeless industrial zone in Thailand or an industrial zone anywhere,“ said Winston Welch on Thursday while he was taking pictures of the tree stumps along Dillingham.

Welch is executive director of The Outdoor Circle. He was one of the community advocates on HART’s walking tour in January down the length of Dillingham Boulevard. He said participants on the tour were also led to believe the trees on the makai side would be retained.

Landscaping contractor and former Outdoor Circle president Steve Mechler who was on the walking tour said it was also his understanding the makai side trees were to be kept.

“We wanted trees kept on the makai side to be a kind of screen to help mitigate the visual impact of the train. Now there is no screen,” said Mechler.

Welch said he found out about the 27 kamani tree removals when people started calling The Outdoor Circle, including Honolulu resident Sharlene Chun-Lum who routinely drives along Dillingham on her way home to Halawa Heights. 

Chun-Lum told Civil Beat she was pulling out onto Dillingham Boulevard from Costco Thursday and was astounded to see there were no trees. “I thought, whoa! What happened? It was a shock to see all the trees gone. It looks very stark.”

The Honolulu Community College campus where the rail guideway will run on the mauka side of Dillingham Boulevard.
These trees in front of Honolulu Community College were among those cut down to make way for the Honolulu rail line. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

The kamani trees along Dillingham Boulevard were planted in 1931 by the City and County of Honolulu’s Shade Tree Commission, an entity The Outdoor Circle urged the city to establish to help private citizensʻ efforts to beautify Honolulu’s expanding urban environment.

Originally a total of 83 kamani trees were planted on each side of Dillingham but over the years the number of trees dwindled to 44.

As part of its agreement with state and federal agencies to move the project ahead, HART through a consultant hired Mason Architects Inc. to gather historic facts about the Dillingham Boulevard kamani trees.

Masonʻs report was done by the companyʻs architectural historian Polly Tice. Tice described the Dillingham trees as an important part of the City Beautiful movement — a widespread effort at the turn of the century in the U.S. and Europe to mitigate the dehumanizing effects of sweeping urbanization brought on by the Industrial Revolution.

Tice wrote that at the time City Beautiful projects that included planting trees were believed to help calm urban unrest and reduce crime as well as instill city dwellers with civic pride and moral virtue. 

Tice called the kamani trees on Dillingham Boulevard visually valuable. “The original feeling of a tree-lined boulevard providing a shady passage for automobiles and pedestrians is partly intact. The tree rows do much to soften the industrial landscape and retain a sense of human scale,” she wrote.

Tice also pointed out that Dillingham Boulevard was historically important as the main thoroughfare connecting downtown Honolulu to Pearl Harbor and West Oahu from 1931 to 1949 before Nimitz Highway and the freeway were built. Those replaced Dillingham as the main route heading toward West Oahu.

HART says the kamani trees it cut down on Dillingham have been “re-purposed,” which means they were given to selected organizations to turn into bowls and other wood products.

Tree stumps along Dillingham Blvd.
HART says the removal of trees has long been part of the plan and should have been known. But Outdoor Circle members say that’s not the case. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

“The rail project has ‘re-purposed’ so many trees itʻs removed on the entire project that there should be enough wood to create 12 wooden bowls for each Hawaii resident,” scoffs landscaper Mechler.

In its email to Civil Beat, HART said: “Since the rail project began, 667 various trees were removed throughout the entire alignment … To offset the tree removal, 685 trees were planted along Segment 1 of the rail system and 210 trees are being planted along Segment 2.”

It says it is evaluating which type of trees it will plant along Dillingham Boulevard to replace the trees it cut down.

“HART is committed to planting 28 true kamani trees along the Dillingham Boulevard corridor,” the agency wrote.

But Kalihi resident Grayson Kauwe is skeptical. “They’re not going to instantly replace beautiful old kamani trees that were there for nearly 100 years. How could they?”

The Outdoor Circleʻs Harding wonders where HART will find available city land on Dillingham Boulevard to replace the kamani trees that were cut down.

She says HART needs to be held accountable to keep it from doing similar tree eradications as the project moves further downtown.

Harding says although it is too late to do anything about the lost Dillingham trees, HART should regroup to make a more comprehensive beautification plan that involves advocacy organizations and people who live and work around the rail stations.

“HART is losing sight of key elements that will make it a success with residents,” she said.

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

HART = "I nevah wen say dat? You get proof in writing?"Boycott as a way of protesting this hypocritical action. "Love the aina." Yeah, right.Seems like Maui county officials aren't the only ones that need to be held accountable.

808Refugee · 2 weeks ago

I noticed how many huge trees had recently been cut down the last time I went to Costco. It was appalling. And to know that it was done by HART, which seems to have intentionally "misunderstood" the Outdoor Circle's input borders on criminal. And now they say they will replace some of the huge kamani trees--with what? Year old saplings that will die from car exhaust long before they can reach 100 years old? I've tried to believe that HART would prove to be a net gain for our city, but not any more.

MsW · 2 weeks ago

I actually support them in this. Monkeypods are not endemic to Hawaii and are arguably invasive species. More room for native trees.

wilson.aliado · 2 weeks ago

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