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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, November 29, 2004

Moanalua Valley's future still unclear

By Andrew Gomes
Advertiser Staff Writer

Keiki watch as yellow-crowned night heron pluck fish from its stream, and Japanese visitors stand in awe of its famed monkeypod tree.

The Damon Estate must sell Moanalua Gardens and its striking monkeypod trees. That's because the trusteeship under which the garden has been open to the public for more than a century is ending.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

Moanalua Gardens, a popular picnic place and tourist stop, for generations has been a gift to the public, a green refuge bestowed by Island business baron Samuel Mills Damon and maintained by a trust since his death in 1924.

Described as one of Hawai'i's earliest public parks when Damon dedicated the site for public enjoyment over a century ago, the privately owned property is now headed for new ownership as the Estate of S.M. Damon liquidates assets under a recently activated provision in Damon's will.

The fate of Moanalua Gardens has yet to be decided, along with 3,700 acres in Moanalua Valley that Damon heirs saved from a proposed route of H-3 Freeway.

Some admirers of the Damon preserve are concerned about the future of the historically and culturally significant lands.

"In the rush to carve up the ... (estate), I'm not sure what provision is being made for this," said Anna Derby Blackwell, retired first director of the Moanalua Gardens Foundation, which leads educational tours into the valley and hosts an annual hula festival in the garden. "It really concerns me."

The estate has been liquidating assets over the past few years in anticipation of trust termination, which Damon stipulated would happen after his last grandchild died. That occurred earlier this month.

Tim Johns, Damon Estate chief operating officer, said that no decision on transferring ownership of the Moanalua land has been made yet, but that trustees will carefully consider options with input from the roughly 20 estate beneficiaries expected to divide an estimated $900 million.

"We realize how special it is," Johns said. "The trees, the homestead and the legacy. It needs to be treated appropriately."

Johns declined to discuss possible options, but they conceivably include selling or conveying title to a public or private owner.

Who may be interested in the Damon property is not known publicly, though obvious possibilities include the city, the state or a nonprofit group like the Nature Conservancy.

City spokeswoman Carol Costa said the city is very interested in purchasing Moanalua Gardens but has not looked into doing so.

It is more questionable whether anyone would try to acquire the garden with an eye to shut out the public or redevelop what has been a showcase for some of Hawai'i's most magnificent trees.

Moanalua Gardens spans 23 acres above industrial Mapunapuna and below residential neighborhoods and the Moanalua elementary and intermediate schools.

The property has "general preservation" zoning, which is generally difficult to rezone, especially for a property with such a long history of public use.

But acquiring the garden may not be cheap. The city for tax-assessment purposes values Moanalua Gardens at $6 million. Maintenance of the park is paid for by the Damon Estate, though Johns declined to disclose the annual expense.

The valley land, which is classified as restricted preservation property and is scattered with cultural artifacts, is valued at $5 million by the city.

Damon acquired the property as part of the larger ahupua'a (uplands-to-sea tract) of Moanalua he was given in 1884 by Princess Pauahi Bishop, whose husband was a business partner of Damon.

The property was the one-time home of Prince Lot, who reigned as King Kamehameha V from 1863 to 1872, and it included a lush garden that extended makai beyond the existing garden's H-1 Freeway border to where the Bob's Big Boy restaurant operates on Pa'a Street.

Lorin Gill, a Moanalua Gardens Foundation board member and retired education director, said Damon extensively redesigned the garden before World War I.

The changes included an entertainment hall imported from China, a Japanese garden and teahouse, and landscaping designed by Scottish botanist Donald MacIntyre.

Damon, whose estate included a golf course, polo field and fishponds, made his mauka garden available for public use. The makai garden remained mostly private with the Chinese hall, the tea garden and Prince Lot's cottage, and a railroad spur to conveniently receive guests.

In the 1950s, some two decades after Damon's death, the makai property made way for industrial development, and the Prince Lot cottage and Chinese Hall were relocated to the mauka garden.

Local landscape architect Paul Weissich added koi and taro ponds to the remaining garden, and planted kukui, kou, kamani, wiliwili and other flora important in the daily lives of Hawaiians, to make the garden more of an ethno-botanical site.

"I'd like to see it perpetuated," said Weissich, who was city director of botanical gardens from 1957 to 1990.

"It'd be a shame to dig it up and put houses on it or another shopping mall. It is of great historic and cultural interest."

Steve Yamamoto, a resident of the Moanalua Gardens subdivision above the garden, said that when he was a kid growing up in Pearl City he used to catch 'opae in the stream that runs through the garden.

"It was a lot of fun in those days," he said on a bridge in the garden as one of his children pulled a tilapia out of the stream below. "It's always fun to bring the kids and reminisce on what it was like when I was growing up. I still love the park."

For Kimberly Hillebrand, Moanalua Gardens is about the trees. "When you talk about the way trees should look — properly pruned, beautifully manicured — these trees are the examples," the local Outdoor Circle arborist said as she showed her father from Michigan the garden last week.

"To bring my family to look at trees — Moanalua Gardens is a must," she said. "Wherever the management of this property goes, I hope they have the same respect, and love for these trees that has been shown."

Five Moanalua Gardens trees, including a Ficus religiosa (bo tree) and two Honduran mahogany trees, are on the city exceptional tree registry. One of two exceptional monkeypod trees is on a national historic register.

"Many Japanese know this tree," said Toyonari Yamazaki, a tourist about to photograph the great monkeypod in bloom last week. "It is very beautiful."

This monkeypod, one of several at the garden, is featured prominently in commercials in Japan, Yamazaki said, and is part of the reason stretch limousines, taxis and tour buses pull into the garden's parking lot every day.

Weissich, the landscape architect whose hand helped shape Moanalua Gardens and who once proposed combining the garden with the Damon valley acreage to form a giant natural park, said it would be nice if Damon beneficiaries choose to continue the gift initiated by Samuel Mills Damon.

"I think it would be a substantial gesture on the part of the beneficiaries to turn the garden over to be maintained as an open-to-the-public, free community asset," Weissich said. "Perhaps they could even set up an endowment to pay for its maintenance. I think it's a great public service."

The ultimate decision as to the garden's fate will be up to estate trustees — First Hawaiian Bank CEO Walter Dods, retired Gen. Fred Weyand, David Haig (a beneficiary) and attorney Paul Ganley. Estate officer Johns said a plan could be in place as early as in the next few months.

Reach Andrew Gomes at agomes@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8065.