Waikiki's colossal kiwi tree

2:10 PM Monday December 19, 2016 Colin Taylor

The Kiwi planted banyan tree dominates Waikiki’s new International Market Place.

A simple tree planting in the 19th century by a New Zealand couple has grown into the central attraction within a huge half-billion US dollar retail development in Waikiki, Hawaii.

Henry and Eliza Macfarlane, left Auckland and emigrated to Honolulu in 1846 where they settled on land close to the Waikiki beachfront. Here they raised six children and, about 1850, planted an Indian banyan tree. 

That 160-year old tree is now more than 18 metres tall and occupies the heart of the new International Market Place at 2330 Kalakaua Avenue.

Ground was broken on the retail development on March 3, 2014 and the US$500 million(NZ$696.6m) complex was officially opened three months ago, when it was still “a work in progress” - with 80 per cent of the retail outlets leased but only half the shops open.

The state-of-the-art, three-level, open air shopping centre encompasses 32,051sq m of gross leasable area and occupies a 2.42ha site stretching an entire city block.

The new International Market Place is anchored by Hawaii's first full line-up Saks Fifth Avenue luxury department store occupying over 7432sq m on three levels and is also leased to 90 other local and global branded retailers.

Ten quality restaurants occupy a 'lanai' (patio) of 5388sq m on the third floor, which is at eye-level with the top leaf canopy of the banyan tree.

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The redeveloped International Market Place in Waikiki cost half a billion US dollars. 

Co-developed by The Taubman Company (NYSE: TCO) headquartered in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and the San Francisco-based Coastwood Capital Group LLC, the Waikiki complex has parking for about 700 vehicles along with electric vehicle charging stations, valet parking and free Wi-Fi.

With direct access and frontageto the main thoroughfares of Kalakaua and Kuhio Avenuesthe centre is exposed to daily foot traffic of 52,000 to 80,000 people.

Taubman says the project has created 2500 permanent jobs and part of the centre's revenue will be donated to Hawaiian hospitals.

The huge American undertaking provides a stunning example to New Zealand developers and companies who have sought to remove long-established pohutukawa, kauri and other large indigenous trees for their developments.

“The banyan tree was a huge effort, but absolutely worth it,” said Robert Taubman, president and CEO of developer Taubman Centers at the official opening on August 25, 2016.

“We actually mapped over eight million data points of the tree to make sure that every root, and every leaf of the tree was preserved, and preserved in the right way. We planned the entire court, in fact the entire shopping centre, around that tree.”

Covering the opening, Shane Nelson of Travel Weekly observed: “The site's 160-year-old banyan certainly appears to have been lovingly preserved and, perhaps not surprisingly, the colossal tree seems to be the most popular feature of the mall.”  

To guard the health of the tree, Taubman engaged a local arborist, Steve Nimz, who hadattended to trees in the now demolished original International Market Place for over 40 years. Nimz was hired as a consultant almost five years ago, when designs were being drafted for the new centre.

In interviews published in Honolulu magazine, Nimz said that he had been caring for the Kiwi-planted banyan since 1971.

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Nestled in the roots of the giant tree, a stone seat is a popular photo site. 

I know the ins and outs, its quirks, what's going on and what it's going through,” he said. “The tree has been the living, breathing soul of the International Market Place since Day One” - when the old Polynesian market complex opened in 1957.

The banyan is on the city's list of exceptional trees” - meaning it's protected and can't be moved, pruned or cut down without the city's permission.

Honolulu magazine noted that: “From the beginning, Taubman Centers, the primary developer, made sure this tree would be taken care of, starting with a tree protection plan that required every worker who set foot on the site go through an orientation about the tree and sign a paper saying they understood its importance. If anyone had to do any work near it, Nimz had to be called first.

“The whole thing started off on the right foot,” Nimz said. “Without those marching orders, we never could have saved that tree.”

The tree preservation plan which he directed throughout the 18-month building process, included, among other things, mapping the roots, so that pilings could be driven in between the roots and not into them. 

The tree's extensive roots had to be carefully freed from the concrete floor of the old market place as it was demolished. The brick and concrete which covered the base of the tree was replaced with landscaping which had the benefit of allowing more oxygen and moisture to filter into the ground.

Pipes had to be fitted underneath its roots instead of cutting them, which would have been simpler. Moisture sensors were placed all over the tree so Nimz could determine when it was stressed or needed water.

The sensors in the ground, on the trunk and in the leaves, monitored the tree's “vital signs” allowing Nimz to respond quickly - “if the tree got too stressed”.

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Arborist Steve Nimz, guardian of the Kiwi banyan tree.

Contractors had to rethink how they worked, move equipment and clean up after.

In a double 'environmental protection dilemma,” native white fairy tern (manu-o-Kū) laid an egg on a branch stretching over a walkway. The tern is a protected bird, so Nimz had to work out how to safeguard it - and the banyan tree.

To shield the bird and egg from construction below, he erected a tent beneath them and put up signs reminding workers about the nesting site - a project that lasted three months. 

“The workers really got into it,” Nimz said. “They were all watching this thing, making sure no one damaged it. They were very excited about the bird. And were really conscious of the concerns with the tree. It was rewarding.”

As construction was coming to an end, Nimz was worried that the tree was showing signs of stress. But Indian banyans are tough. “I don't want to say bulletproof, but they're incredibly resilient,” Nimz said.

Then, just before the official opening, the banyan shed its dust-covered leaves and sprouted new healthy leaves. 

“It couldn't have looked any better,” Nimz said. “We helped guide the tree, but that tree really wanted to live. That tree is a fighter.”

He says the new International Market Place is going to be a much better environment for the tree.

A feature within the banyan tree is a bridge winding from the first-floor level through its branches to the re-creation of a treehouse built by Donn Beach, who owned the Don the Beachcomber restaurant chain, and who created the original $1.5 million International Market Place opened in 1957. 

The first treehouse served as Beach's office. Hawaii radio celebrity, Hal Lewis (best known to his radio listeners as 'Aku') also broadcast his popular morning talk show from the banyan treehouse in the in the early 1960s.

As a curious aside, the former Market Place ran on 'Hawaiian time' so every clock on the property was set seven minutes behind.

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A treehouse within the boughs of the banyan tree honours an original version.

Of special interest to the 63,700 Kiwis, who visit Hawaii every year, and who holiday for an average of 9.5 days in the islands, is a plaque within the new treehouse acknowledging the Macfarlanes as planters of the tree. 

The selection of a banyan tree by Henry and Eliza Macfarlane was appropriate for a couple involved in the hotel industry in both Auckland and Honolulu. The Indian banyan, or Ficus benghalensisis the national tree of India and is viewed as sacred by Hindus - being the provider of shelter for travellers.

Early in 1842, Henry Macfarlane and his brother-in-law, Thomas Henderson, jointly bought a block of land in Auckland from a Dudley Sinclair on the corner of Shortland Crescent and High St where they built the Commercial Hotel at a cost of £2000.

(As another interesting aside, in 1834, Henry's sister Catherine Macfarlane married blacksmith Thomas Maxwell Henderson, after whom Auckland's western suburb and the city of Henderson is named.)

The partnership of Henderson & Macfarlane also set up the Auckland-based Circular Saw shipping line and, among other enterprises, was involved in the merchandising, timber milling and export industries.

After Henry and Eliza Macfarlane arrived in Hawaii in 1846, they set up a hotel whichagain, was called the Commercial Hotel. This has a notable claim to fame in Hawaiian history with Macfarlane introducing gas lighting to Hawaii, hanging the first gas lamps over his hotel's billiard tables.

The Polynesian newspaper of November 6, 1858 reported: “On Tuesday evening last, the spacious billiard saloon at the Commercial Hotel was well attended, no doubt the novelty of the room being lit up with gas proving a great attraction. There are four burners and they filled the large room with a most brilliant light.

Mr. Macfarlane is deserving of great credit for his indefatigable exertions in being the first to introduce gas on this Island”.

The Commercial Hotel, which operated until its demolition in 1903, was one of Honolulu's earliest hotels to advertise hot and cold water for baths and showers.

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The Kiwi banyan tree is the subject artwork and historic photos on the centre’s walls.

The Macfarlane's son, George, followed his parents in the hospitality industry, building the Park Beach Hotel near Kapiolani Park, and the bygone Honolulu Seaside Hotel on a site now occupied by the famous 'Pink Palace' - the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.

George's brother, Clarence Macfarlane, was a pioneer of another major Waikiki tourism industry. He is known for being one of the first 'haoles' (Caucasians) to master surfing during the early 1900s - when it was almost unheard of for a 'white person' to master Hawaii's 'sport of kings'.

Michael Fenley, general manager of the new centre, says the iconic banyan tree will continue its historic role of welcoming Hawaiian residents and tourists to the International Market Place for many generations to come.

“With the addition of relaxing lounge areas,and a treehouse that pays homage to the original version, guests will be able to enjoy the tree as never before,” he says.

The site of the Macfarlane's early home is also of significant interest to Hawaiians.

William Charles Lunalilo, Hawaii's first elected king, ownethe property which was distantly known as Kaluaokau - the grave or pit of Ka'u.

During his reign from January 8, 1873, until his death from tuberculosis on February 3, 1874, it was proposed Lunalilo marry Queen Emma Kaleleonalani, widow of King Kamehameha IV.

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A plaque in the treehouse highlights the banyan tree’s New Zealand connection.

Lunalilo bequeathed the property to her and Queen Emma built a summer home on it using stones from a ruined heiau (temple) to build a stone fence.

As a devout Anglican, Queen Emma had no fear of incurring the fury of the gods of her forefathers.

Queen Emma's will stated that her lands be put in trust with the proceeds to benefit the Queen's Hospital in Honolulu, which she and her husband, Kamehameha IV, helped to found. 

Today, the land occupied by the new International Market Place is owned and managed by the Queen Emma Land Company, a non-profit organisation set up to support The Queen's Medical Centerthe state's largest private non-profit hospital which, with its affiliates,provides quality health care for Hawaiians.

The company accomplishes this by managing and enhancing the income-generating potential of the lands left to The Queen's Hospital by Queen Emma in 1885, and additional properties owned by The Queen's Health Systems.

“The new International Market Place will provide a renewed and sustainable income source for The Queen's Medical Center,” says Eric Martinson, president of Queen Emma Land Company. “It will allow us to continue caring for Hawaii's people for years to come.”