Tel Aviv Residents Save the City's Oldest Ficus Tree

At 13 meters tall, and with a trunk measuring 2.2 meters around and a crown projection area of roughly 50 meters, it is larger than any other known tree in the city.

Tomer Appelbaum

The oldest and biggest ficus tree in Tel Aviv has provided shade in Weiner Park with its thick, high branches for decades, and has been a major part of the scenery in that part of town.

So when local residents heard it was in danger, they came out quickly against the city’s plan to do infrastructure work on Mandelstam Street. They managed to save the ficus tree, together with another group of trees in the park that municipality officials had intended to cut down as part of the plan to demolish an abandoned building, and construct a kindergarten and baby wellness center on Dizengoff Street next to the park.

To put the construction plan into effect, municipality officials were going to move a transformer station adjacent to the abandoned building into the park because, as they said, they wanted to move the station away from the future kindergarten because of the risk of radiation. They intended to place the transformers in an underground room beneath Weiner Park, and to do that, they were going to cut down a group of 14 trees there. To move the transformers to their new site, the municipality planned to bury the wires, which would reach Dizengoff Street in the park.

Once they began digging, preparing the soil for the wires they would bury there, they planned to replace the sewage pipeline serving the nearby buildings and change its route. Municipality officials claimed that the construction plan would not damage the old ficus tree adjacent to the park, and the urban forest commissioner approved the plan about six weeks ago. But when a group of citizens appealed to National Forest Commissioner Hagai Snir, the latter stopped the project from being carried out.

“We found out about all of this by accident,” recall Rotem and Shai Reshef, who live near the park. When they contacted the municipality, they had a hard time getting information about the plan. “They told us all kinds of stories. It was utterly obvious to us that the construction in the park would destroy the ficus tree,” Shai says. “This is a park from a time gone by, a very special park, and they want to turn it into a plastic park,” Rotem says.

Photo by Tomer Appelbaum

Refusing to accept the plan as a fait accompli, the Reshefs collected 600 signatures on a petition, which they brought to Snir. They also contacted Haim Weiner, who donated a large sum of money to create the park, which is named after his wife Jana. Weiner, who lives in the United States, “was in total shock,” says Shai.

Snir accepted the residents’ position. “Weiner Park is a small and beautiful public space whose planning was approved in the early 1930s according to the Geddes Plan for Tel Aviv,” he wrote in his decision. “The most important tree in the area, whose branches shade a good deal of Weiner Park, the roof of the baby wellness clinic building and the apartment building on 11 Mandelstam Street, is the largest known Ficus microcarpa tree in Tel Aviv. Its trunk measures 2.2 meters around at a height of 130 centimeters, it is about 13 meters tall and has a crown projection area of roughly 50 meters, and is larger than any other known tree in the city.” Snir added that the tree, which is believed to be more than 80 years old, grew beside a well that was used to water the orchards in the area.

The municipality’s plan showed that the new three-story building would be located more than 10 meters away from the trunk of the tree. But when Snir walked around the area, he saw that this fairly small distance put the tree in significant danger. “On my inspection, I saw that we had been given a plan that showed a kindergarten with one floor only, and the two floors above it, which project five meters from the ground floor toward the tree, did not appear on it. In addition, the top floor has prominent columns that project toward the tree that would require that the tree be pruned and made significantly smaller,” he wrote.

“The planned development would damage this giant Ficus microcarpa tree both in its appearance and in its roots, and it is feared that it could not be preserved in its present form. The construction of a higher and broader building in place of the existing baby wellness clinic requires that the tree’s western branches, which cover the existing single-story building, be shortened dramatically. The excavation for the new sewage pipeline would harm the tree roots that face Weiner Park, from which it appears to get most of its water.”

Snir criticized the management of the Tel Aviv municipality and praised the residents who had opposed the damage to the tree and to the park. “We cannot ignore the great involvement of the residents and the great effort they made to protect Weiner Park and its trees, including the large ficus tree near the planned building and the park,” he wrote. “The plan should have taken into account the residents’ use of Weiner Park, together with the great importance of the trees that create green spaces and shade. Everything should have been done to improve the park and not reduce it, while causing such dramatic damage to the existing trees.”

Photo by Tomer Appelbaum

A spokesperson for the Tel Aviv municipality said, “The ficus is marked for preservation and will remain where it is, and its roots will not be damaged when the project is carried out. The Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality plans to establish a baby wellness clinic and two kindergartens at 258 Dizengoff Street because of a severe shortage of such places in the area, and as a solution to the obvious demographic need, since the population of young people living there has grown. This is why the municipality is moving a station of the Israel Electric Corporation to the area of Weiner Park and placing it underground at the edge of the park, abiding by the strictest regulations of construction and environmental protection."

The spokesperson also said, "As part of this move, the municipality is rebuilding and renovating the entire park, and also making it accessible to benefit the neighborhood residents. The project was presented to the residents in detail during a meeting at the municipality building on September 28, 2014, and at their request it was agreed that another meeting would be held [tomorrow] with a smaller team of residents. ... We are discussing the rest of the trees at the location with the forest commissioner.”