With winter rains upon us, city crews will be busy keeping up with weed control and other landscaping while a pilot project to replace small plots of grass with artificial turf across Oahu is seeing mixed results.
In February 2016 the city launched a $1 million pilot project to install artificial turf in nine medians, roundabouts and other traffic spaces in each of the island’s nine City Council districts — an effort that Councilwoman Kymberly Pine hopes will lead to reduced water use and landscaping maintenance.
“We have to look at the future of our water use and the sustainability of our island as our population grows,” Pine said. “Whether this works or not, I don’t know, but we have to at least try.”
Crews installed a strip of artificial turf in Pine’s Council district on Panana Street in front of Maukalani Elementary School. Pine welcomed the installation in an area where sprinkler heads have been vandalized and residents have dumped their belongings, a combination that destroys the landscaping.
“The area has a lot of transient people, and sprinkler heads have been broken, which has led to maintenance problems,” Pine said. “Is it cost-efficient in the long run for the Council to expand on the program? We’ll have to see the cost benefits.”
Some of the 3-year-old artificial turf already has been damaged, including a section in a traffic median at 6th and Kaimuki avenues that was the scene of a traffic accident, according to Eduardo Manglallan, deputy director of the city Department of Facility Maintenance, which both oversaw the installation of artificial turf across Oahu and is responsible for maintenance of city-owned grass and other landscaping.
Another median filled in with artificial turf on Glen Avenue near Wahiawa Elementary is now ringed with weeds, including some that are growing out of the center of the fake turf.
But the strip of artificial turf installed in a roundabout at Kuahaka and Kalauipo streets in Pearl City is so realistic looking that a citizen used a rider mower to try to cut it even shorter, Manglallan said.
“It looks nice, it really does,” said Councilman Brandon Elefante, whose district includes the Pearl City roundabout. “Any time you can have something natural — that’s maintained — that’s always a good thing. But I can understand limits on budgets, on manpower. … It can be tough to keep up, especially with the rainy weather.”
Kathryn Henski, a Waikiki Neighborhood Board member, said weeds — along with overgrown and lackluster landscaping — cast a negative light on the visitor experience.
“What bothers me is that when you used to get off the plane, the first thing you would smell were all the plumeria blooms,” she said. “It was so fragrant. Now there’s none of that. Instead, when you get a rental car or take a bus or shuttle to come into Honolulu and Waikiki, all along the way you see shacks, debris, homeless and overgrown weeds in the median. It’s very unappealing.”
Henski said the city and state invested in enhanced landscaping before the Asia-Economic Pacific Cooperation conference in 2010, but it’s been downhill ever since.
“Other island nations, when you get off the plane, you are amazed by the bougainvillea and flowering trees and shrubs,” she said. “Our airport and Nimitz Highway are a depressing nightmare instead of the paradise that people expect.”
Henski said the route down Kapahulu Avenue into Waikiki is equally lacking, especially by the library and Jefferson Elementary School.
“I’ve raised holy hell,” she said. “I’ve called people, and they say that there’s not enough money. I’m ashamed about how it looks. They need to invest in a major beautification project. Does it affect the visitor experience? Of course, it does.”
Henski, who is a Rotarian, said she’d like to see improvements before June, when 30,000 Rotarians from around the world are scheduled to arrive in Honolulu for a global conference.
No one in the city is specifically assigned to weed control.
The city Department of Facility Maintenance oversees a grounds maintenance staff of 50 positions that’s responsible for maintaining approximately 3 million square feet of city roadway medians, traffic islands and other areas, said Ross Sasamura, director and chief engineer of the department. Sasamura’s department also is responsible for special cleanup crews that conduct homeless sweeps, which the city prefers to call “enforcement actions.”
The responsibilities of the 50 facility maintenance workers include irrigation system repairers — and 16 positions in the urban core also perform grass cutting and vegetation removal at roadside areas and streams, Sasamura said.
In an email, Sasamura said that the city Division of Road Maintenance “also has additional staffing in each of its seven rural baseyards that perform vegetation removal from streams, roadsides and remnant city properties but they also perform other tasks such as pothole patching, litter receptacle servicing at bus stops, debris and illegal dumping removal, and manual sweeping of streets. Other agencies also perform weed control such as Department of Parks and Recreation, Department of Enterprise Services (golf courses), and the Honolulu Board of Water Supply.”
Sasamura added, “Vegetation growth on Oahu is likely different from other similar sized cities because of the weather, rainfall and other differences in climate. … Cutting of roadway medians, traffic islands and other areas maintained by the Grounds Maintenance staff are on a regular schedule which may vary at times due to safety concerns over visibility of approaching traffic. Baseyard superintendents may divert crews to specific locations ahead of scheduled dates for this reason.”
Department of Facility Maintenance crews collaborate with their counterparts at the state Department of Transportation’s Highways Division “on areas of high vegetation growth and traffic impacts,” as well as with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife “in controlling roadway areas impacted by guinea grass and other fast growing weeds,” Sasamura said.
DOT officials did not immediately respond to emailed questions about their weed cutting and landscape operations.
Asked if there are environmental problems with cut weeds entering Oahu’s sewer system, Sasamura said in his email:
“Environmental issues may occur in stream areas where decomposing vegetation may release nitrogen or other products that could result in poor water quality. However, it is important to consider the large quantity of leaves and other plant droppings that enter streams, rivers and near shore waters from naturally vegetated, undeveloped areas.”
Manglallan, Sasamura’s deputy director, said in a follow-up interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the artificial turf project has the potential to save taxpayers money.
“It’s a win-win for the government and especially taxpayers and residents impacted by weekly weed whacking — making noise and all the debris,” he said.
Councilman Elefante said he appreciated that Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration installed artificial turf in each Council district.
In his nine years on the City Council, Elefante said the only other project shared by each Council district was the 2016 effort led by then-Council Chairmen Ernie Martin to provide $2 million for each Council member to create tent cities and hygiene centers. To date, only Councilman Joey Manahan has since seen the creation of a hygiene center in his Iwilei district. And the concept of tent cities is no longer embraced by either city or state officials as way to create permanent housing.
The city issued bids for the artificial turf pilot project and ended up working with a local contractor to install “SYNlawn 116” turf at a cost of $4 per square foot.
Manglallan said the city erred in not digging deep enough.
Instead of digging out four inches of dirt and replacing it with four inches of sand — for drainage — crews instead should have dug down a total of six inches.
The result was that some seeds remained, allowing weeds to grow in areas that were supposed to be maintenance free, Manglallan said.
But a one-year warranty on the artificial turf allowed for work to be done to remove the seeds, he said.
He called it “lessons learned.”
“There should be no wild grass growing,” Manglallan said. “It’s the goal not to touch them at all. Once you install it, you’ll never water it and you’ll never mow it again.”
ARTIFICIAL TURF LOCATIONS
The city launched a pilot project in 2016 to install $1 million worth of artificial turf in street medians, roundabouts and other locations in each of the nine City Council districts:
>> Panana Street in front of Mauka Lani Elementary School in Makakilo
>> Glen Avenue near Wahiawa Elementary School in Wahiawa
>> 510 Kihapai St. at Hooulu Street in Kailua
>> 6th and Kaimuki avenues in Kaimuki
>> Heulu Street at Keeaumoku Street in Makiki
>> Lanakila Street near the Lanakila Health Center in Liliha
>> Ala Oli Street near Haloa Drive in Halawa
>> Kuahaka Street near Kalauipo Street in Pearl City
>> Kipapa Drive near Mililani Waena Park in Mililani
Star-Advertiser writer Allison Schaefers contributed to this report.