Huge rain tree can’t be replaced. Some freight it might die

FORT LAUDERDALE — Fort Lauderdale’s famous rain tree — the one standing eight stories high and insured for $1 million — was in the way of two new apartment towers slated to rise on the south bank of the New River.

So in early August, the developer moved the 100-year-old tree closer to the water, but not quite all the way to its planned final destination.

Critics say the tree should have been left alone until it could be planted in the ground. For now, it sits on a grassy plateau 6 feet above ground, waiting on a new seawall to be built. It will likely have to wait until the end of the year.

That has some worried the prized tree won’t survive.

“The tree is dying a slow death as it is,” said Kimberly Christie, a Michigan native whose ninth floor balcony overlooks the tree. “If that tree dies, I’ll be sick. It’s a beautiful rain tree. This would never have happened in Michigan. Oh my God, they would have had a human chain around this tree.”

Christie also worries that a hurricane could topple the tree before it gets planted.

But developer Asi Cymbal says the tree now has more protection because it sits securely in a planter anchored to concrete pillars for support.

An eight-story-tall rain tree, shown here on Thursday, waiting to be moved and planted closer to the New River in downtown Fort Lauderdale.  The tree was moved to make way for the Raintree Riverwalk Residences, a new waterfront project expected to open in 2025.

The century-old tree, weighing in at 1.5 million pounds, needs a seawall specially designed to handle its massive weight, Cymbal says.

“It’s on the way to its final destination, but because we love it so much, to be cautious we want to secure the final location further by building a seawall to further support it,” Cymbal told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “Once that’s built, the rain tree will be planted in its final location. We expect that process to take a few more months.”

The Samanea saman, or rain tree, was so named because its leaves curl when it rains.

Fort Lauderdale’s urban forester has been keeping tabs on the tree, monitoring its progress and well being. The tree, still standing along the 400 block of Southwest Fourth Avenue, remains in good condition with a fully functional irrigation system to prevent the root zone from drying out, city officials say.

Longtime resident Brucie Cummings has been keeping an eye on the tree too.

“We still care about the tree — a lot,” she said. “We have asked about them doing the seawall before moving the tree. They insisted on moving the tree first. I’d like to know what’s happening to the tap root. I don’t know what we can do about it now. But if it dies they should be held responsible.”

Cymbal, who bought the property a decade ago, says the tree is better off in its new spot.

“We decided to move the rain tree before the seawall was built because we wanted the tree better secured for hurricane season,” he said. “Sitting above ground in its current location provides much more security for the rain tree, as it is now securely anchored down and prepped. Our raintree can stay securely in its current location for years, although we will preserve and relocate it in the coming months once our seawall is completed.”

The company hired by Cymbal, Environmental Design Inc., has made a name for itself moving giant trees even longer distances.

When they move a tree, they make sure the roots remain moist, enveloping the unearthed root ball with burlap and ensuring the roots remain well watered throughout the journey. The company has safely relocated trees weighing more than 1 million pounds.

In 2011, the company was hired to move a massive 800,000-pound Louisiana oak to its new home 1.5 miles away. The 160-year-old tree, dubbed Mr. Al, is still standing.

Cymbal says he believes the rain tree can and will survive, even if a major hurricane blows through town.

“Happy to report that in its current position it’s anchored by concrete pillars which puts the tree in a better position to fight a hurricane than in its original position,” he said.

Even if it were to be knocked down by the winds of a hurricane, it could still be saved, he says.

“It’s healthier today than ever before during the last 12 years, so it could recover better today than before should it get knocked down by a storm,” he said.

In March, city commissioners gave the green light for Raintree Riverwalk Residences, a $500 million project that will break ground in the second quarter of 2023. The project is expected to be completed by 2025.

Trees typically are cut down to make way for the latest new concrete tower.

Not this one.

The beloved rain tree, the largest of its kind in the continental US, was granted special protection from city leaders in 1987. To cut it down or move it, you’d need commission approval.

Tree preservation experts move Fort Lauderdale's prized rain tree on Aug.  4 to make way for two new apartment towers near the New River.  The tree stands eight stories high and weighs a staggering 1.5 million pounds.  But it will need to be moved again after repairs are made to a nearby seawall before the end year.

Cymbal got the thumbs up to move the tree, with one caveat. If it dies within five years of being moved, he’ll owe the city $1 million.

But what happens if the tree gets taken out by a hurricane that barrels through town? He won’t owe a dime, according to City Attorney Alain Boileau.

That, Boileau says, would be considered an act of God, letting Cymbal off the hook for the $1 million.

Christie, a fierce admirer of the tree since moving next door four years ago, argues the developer should still have to pay the $1 million if a hurricane hits before the tree can be planted.

“They should not have moved this tree so prematurely when they did not have their plans and [seawall] permits lined up and finalized,” she said. “If the hurricane hits now I strongly believe the developer should be held responsible because the tree is not in its destination or secured.”

Cymbal, who hired tree preservation experts out of Texas to oversee the move, says he’s doing all he can to make sure the tree survives.

The tree was rolled to its current spot on Aug. 4 with a special lift system that can move giant trees over turf and concrete with minimal harm.

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Rose Bechard Butman, an arborist and member of the Fort Lauderdale Garden Club, objected to the tree being moved in the first place, saying it was too much of a risk.

“There aren’t many of these large canopy trees left,” she said. “There’s only a few left. Fort Lauderdale has been undergoing a lot of development and when you have a lot of concrete it makes it hard to put in large canopy trees.”

The rain tree is moved closer to the New River in downtown Fort Lauderdale on Aug.  4. Critics say the tree should have been left alone until it could be planted in the ground.  For now, it sits on a grassy plateau 6 feet above ground, waiting on a new seawall to be built.

Butman was there on the day the experts moved the tree.

“They should have done the seawall first,” she said. “If you look at the lot, they cleared every tree off the lot except for the rain tree. Now it’s in a box.”

Butman says the tree should survive as long as it’s not allowed to dry out.

“There’s not much we can do at this point,” she said. “The sooner they get it in the ground the better.”

Susannah Bryan can be reached at sbryan@sunsentinel.com or on Twitter @Susannah_Bryan

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