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Plan puts garden on Capitol’s roof in Honolulu

Gov. Neil Abercrombie has plans for a new rooftop garden on the fifth floor of the state Capitol.

The project would promote local food security, according to the bill before a legislative panel

By Andrew Gomes
Star advertiser
Feb 10, 2013

Fruits and vegetables could join bills and laws as products coming out of Hawaii’s state Capitol.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie wants to develop rooftop gardens on the fifth-floor roof deck ringing his office and the office of Lt. Gov. Shan Tsu­tsui.

The plan is put forth in House Bill 1365 at the Legislature, and if developed would join a small but growing number of buildings in Hono­lulu topped with tiny urban farms.

Louise Kim McCoy, Abercrombie’s communications director, said the governor thought of rooftop gardens at the state Capitol when he first took office and noticed the barren space on the fifth-floor terrace.

“Rooftop gardens are becoming more common and can be seen in cities all over the world,”?she said in an email.

Abercrombie has advocated for increasing agricultural production and local food security in his “New Day” plan. Showcasing produce being grown atop the state’s most prominent government building would help promote that objective, according to the bill.

Beds of produce also would improve aesthetics of the roof deck, which is dotted with large concrete planters filled with nau­paka and suffers from poor drainage and leaks.

The area typically open to pedestrians is cordoned off, and the state awarded a $4.8 million construction job to Kaikor Construction Co. last month to repair the roof.

Alan Joaquin, founder of the local rooftop garden company FarmRoof, said the Capitol building is a great opportunity for urban agriculture, particularly because irrigation infrastructure already exists for the planters.

“It’s pretty much designed to have a green roof,”?he said.?”Right now it’s not doing anything but being an eyesore.”

Rooftop gardens have been developed at Castle Medical Center in Kailua, Banyan Street Manor affordable rental apartments in Palama and the Automart USA?used-car dealership showroom in Kakaako. C-MORE Hale, a research building at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, features a landscaped roof.

Russell Kokubun, director of the state Department of Agriculture, has visited the Castle Medical Center garden and was impressed. He said Abercrombie, who has toured the roof garden at Automart USA, asked him to explore developing something similar at the Capitol.

“(The Agriculture Department) is very supportive of this legislation as a means to explore innovative, agricultural technologies that can be applied in urban settings,”?Kokubun said in an email.

It hasn’t been determined how the garden would work in terms of ownership and operation. The bill seeks to appropriate money for the Agriculture Department to develop the garden. The amount of money isn’t specified in the bill.

Kokubun said $250,000 would provide a good start for a garden on a portion of the roof. He anticipates a request for competitive proposals would be issued for development of the garden. A?variety of operating arrangements is possible, including a for-profit enterprise tied to a farmers market, a nonprofit operator or even a community-supported agriculture model where community members are responsible for farming expenses and income.

However, the state Department of Accounting and General Services has a different view. The agency, which manages state buildings, opposes the governor’s initiative because of concerns a garden will be too heavy and require difficult maintenance.

DAGS, in written testimony on HB 1365, also said the State Historic Preservation Division would need to be consulted and provide approval for a rooftop garden because the Capitol is a historic building.

Instead, DAGS?said it would look for another state building on which to develop a rooftop garden pilot project.

The Historic Hawai‘i Foundation raised a concern over how a rooftop garden might alter the historic character of the building where certain features were designed to represent elements of local geography, such as columns representing palm trees and reflecting pools representing the ocean.

The bill was passed unanimously 9-0 by the House Committee on Agriculture on Thursday. It is now headed for a hearing in the House Finance Committee.