A massive, historic rain tree is on the move in Fort Lauderdale. ‘It’s like a heart transplant.’ –Sun Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE — The ground started moving in downtown Fort Lauderdale on Thursday as the relocation of the city’s beloved rain tree culminated in an outdoor spectacle. So how do you manage to move a green behemoth that’s estimated to weigh 1.5 million pounds? Very, very carefully.

The tree stood, surrounded by some of its grass, atop an array of 2,000-pound tarpoon-shaped balloons, the same kind used in China to launch big ships, each with the capacity to lift 300,000 pounds.

Then it was rolled across them, pulled by two excavators attached to it with ropes. Small construction vehicles dragged new balloons, one by one, from the back to the front, to create new ground for the tree to roll over — like an elaborate game of leapfrog.

The tree will be kept moving over the next 24 hours, or however long it takes for a team of workers overseen by a world-renowned tree mover to move it several dozen feet closer to the New River. The goal: to make room to accommodate twin high-rise apartment buildings, luxury shops and five-star restaurants.

Observers stood atop a water taxi across from the tree-moving action, snacking on mini quiches and caprese skewers and filming the laborious operation on their cellphones. Amid the beeps of excavators, Asi Cymbal, the developer, and Hector Torres, the CEO, chatted with Vice Mayor Ben Sorensen, one of the city commissioners involved in the decision-making that led to Thursday’s move.

Community members and preservationists had previously protested the uprooting of the centuries-old tree, arguing it might not survive. But Cymbal embraced the relocation Thursday, framing it as evidence of an ethical approach to development.

“Today’s a day we should all be proud of,” he said in a brief speech. “You’re witnessing how world-class development can coexist with doing what is right.”

The tree had already been removed from the ground and root-pruned, or had its roots cut so it can grow new ones. Experts checked its health after the root-pruning. It bloomed a verdant green this year, evidence that its vascular system is working.

“When we say tree transplants, in a lot of respects because it’s a perishable, it’s a living thing, it’s like a heart transplant,” said Tom Cox, the owner of Environmental Design, the tree-moving company overseeing the operation. “Everything has to be right. And we got the patient healthy before we did the transplant.”

The whole balloon-oriented moving process — called an arbor-lift system — isn’t much different from how the Egyptians built the pyramids, Cox said. In his system, the tree never moves higher than 3 feet off the ground, which may make for a less-thrilling viewing experience, but lowers the chance of catastrophe.

Still, every step has its risks, Cox said, and there are big unknowns. Two days ago, when the tree was removed, workers encountered unexpected groundwater. And they don’t know the ground conditions where the tree will be planted. While they were digging around, he said, they found old concrete “things” they weren’t expecting.

Cymbal seemed confident Thursday, however. He has already fronted the city $1 million of his own money, on top of the half-million cost of the relocation. If the tree dies in the next five years, the city gets to keep it.

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So why did they choose to build on the tree’s original spot, given the cost?

“This is a beautiful spot,” Cymbal said. “It’s also the last major undeveloped spot in downtown Fort Lauderdale.”

The first years are crucial. Unlike most things, the longer a tree lives, the more likely it is to survive. “It’s not like a refrigerator,” said Cox.

In its new location, the developers say, visitors will be able to better appreciate the tree. It will become the centerpiece of a park as part of the Riverwalk “experience,” surrounded by fountains, adorned by shops and five-star restaurants, Torres said. In its place, two giant luxury apartment buildings will stand.

“Not only is it an end destination for the tree, but it will also be an end destination for residents to enjoy shopping and restaurants and the food and beverage culture,” said Torres.

He continued, “I don’t consider this an environmental issue. I consider this as an opportunity to complement what the city has already done in preserving the tree, and assisting the city’s intent in preserving the tree and spending the private money to really put it in a place where it can be celebrated the way it was meant to be.”

The tree should be viewable in its new home as early as Friday afternoon, weather permitting.

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