January 2010 appeal by Adam Williams to the UHM Campus Center Board

25 January 2010

Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen,

My name is Adam Williams and I am a botany major here at UH, with a minor in tropical plant and soil science. When I first came from the mainland to visit this school, before I began attending it, I was struck by the diverse collection of plants, particularly the large old trees with their giant spreading canopies. We have a beautiful campus, but not because of the eclectic, ill-planned buildings. Rather, it is the tropical landscape, especially the trees, that give our campus the allure and appeal fitting of Hawaii’s most prominent University, and the only American university located in the tropics. Let’s be honest, if you were to take away the diversity of trees from this campus it would be quite plain and unattractive. I’ve come here today to talk to you about one of those old trees, one very special tree, and why it must be preserved, the Comose Fig tree.

Considered by many to be the father of Hawaiian botany, Dr. Joseph Rock was the Hawaiian Territory’s first botanist, and in 1911 he joined the UH Manoa faculty, creating the University’s herbarium, just named last year in his honor. During his nine years here at UH-Manoa he planted twenty acres of the campus with over 500 different species of plants from around the world, many of them unique and rare. The Comose Fig tree is one of those plants.

Shortly after starting this campaign I received a letter about the tree from a man who knew Joseph Rock personally. It read:

The famous old specimen of Ficus benjamina var. comosa planted by Dr. Joseph Rock must be retained at all cost. Certainly a student facility such as that proposed can be located somewhere else. I can’t see why the activities planned for the new building are all that important. Students can run, exercise and shower elsewhere. This is a singular example of lack of values.—Paul R. Weissich, Director Emeritus, Honolulu Botanical Gardens Executor, Estate of Joseph F. Rock

When I first came here to UH I didn’t know anything about the landscape’s history, but two trees in particular stood out to me as exceedingly special, the Comose Fig tree being one of them. The other is the Baobab tree, aka the Dead Rat tree, next to the art building. Did you ever notice how the art building actually goes around the tree? Well, that tree was going to be removed to make room for the art building some twenty-five to thirty years ago, but students rallied to save it at the last minute, the design was changed, and now the building and tree both enhance each other, making quite a striking sight that every new student is paraded by when touring the campus. That one tree is also now the largest one of its kind in all of the US. Why can’t the Comose Fig tree be incorporated into the design for the new recreation center? The Comose Fig tree must be saved.

Another tree, the Baker’s Cassia in front of Hamilton library, was also threatened with expansion plans back in 2007, when I had just started here. Again, that tree was saved by a student petition circulated on campus and was just recently recognized as a Hawaii Exceptional Tree.

When I first saw the design for the new recreation center last summer, when I looked online at your website, it included the Comose Fig tree. In fact the tree was part of the architectural renderings in both the top view and the rendering of the mauka side of the new building. I was concerned that the proposed building was close to the tree, coming up to about where the old one-story building sits, but pleased to see it clearly drawn in. What happened to that design? I was shocked and dismayed when the old design was replaced in September with the current plan to build right over this magnificent tree. That was when I decided to ask my fellow students if they wanted their fees to go towards cutting down the Comose Fig tree to make room for a recreation center. I am asking you now, on behalf of over 1900 people who have signed the petition, to design around the Comose Fig tree, not over it!

Wanting to expand the petition to include more than just current students, I launched an online petition as well. As of today the online petition has 573 signatures, including not just students, but also current and past faculty, alumni, and community members. Of the many notable names on there, a few stand out: Dr. Jerry Carr, former chair of the UH botany department; Robert Loy, of the Outdoor Circle; and State Representative Corinne Ching. What’s nice about this online format is it has allowed people to leave comments:

Mike Barber on Oct. 23, 2009
Comments: The weeping fig is a favorite focal point of beauty on campus. To remove it is irresponsible. As a student, future alum and member of the community I am very disappointed in this decision. Mike Barber

Cindy Lance on Oct. 23, 2009
Comments: I grew up in Manoa, live close to the campus and have spent many happy hours under this magnificent old tree. Move the building and save the tree.

Maggi Quinlan, Ph.D
Comments: It is hard to imagine that at a school of UH stature there can be no more creative thinking than is being displayed in this project. Surely great minds can find a way to create a Center without destroying this landmark tree. If not, this is a sad statement for the entire University of Hawaii and all who would allow this travesty. PRESERVE THIS TREE!!!

Michelle Hettema Watt on Nov. 20, 2009
Comments: I graduated from UH 35 years ago and I still remember this tree. How can you think of destroying forever such a special entity. Please revise your plans.

Benjamin Gilbert on Jan. 21, 2010
Comments: I am a UH alumnus and current faculty member. On a campus remarkably devoid of notable landmarks and choked with drab emotionless buildings, the one exceptional feature is the diverse flora. The old trees add character to a campus otherwise lacking. Please don’t chop down our tree.

I encourage you all to read these many comments and really think about how important this tree is, and not just in an abstract historical sense. The Comose Fig tree has left a profound impression on many people over the years who have been a part of UH. And now its future is in your hands. This is your opportunity to stand up for historic preservation, to make a statement about sustainability and responsible development, both for your careers and for the entire University of Hawaii. Make the right decision: Save the Comose Fig tree!

I want to be clear about something: I am not opposed to the new recreation center, and neither is the petition I started. I appreciate what you all are trying to bring to the campus and the UH student experience by building it. But you don’t improve the campus by removing part of what makes it great to begin with. This should never be an either-or situation. Removing this tree to make room for the recreation center is simply not an option and should never have been seriously considered. I am aware that many of my allies in the campaign to save this tree, such as the Outdoor Circle, the UH Landscape Advisory Committee, and many of the petition signers, are opposed to the site location. I personally have no authority to talk about site evaluations or the considerations of constructing such a large building. But I do know that a design was already created which incorporated the Comose Fig tree, the design which I viewed on your website up until last September.

Representative Corinne Ching on Jan. 21, 2010
Comments: Our office here at the House of Representatives supports your efforts to preserve this invaluable campus landmark. The Comose Fig Tree is certainly a monument to local history, and the former plan — to build the center around, not over, the tree — seems both feasible and worthwhile to reconsider.

And so, on behalf of nearly 2000 people, including students, faculty past and present, and members of the community, we respectfully insist, Design around the Comose Fig tree, not over it!!!

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