A makeover is planned for the entire square around the historic banyan tree landmark across from Riverside Park on Old 41 Road in Bonita Springs. Plans are being presented to City Council for beautification of the tree, estimated to be more than 100 years old and is the second oldest banyan tree in Southwest Florida after one at Edison & Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers.
Shortly after Derrick Botana became president of the Bonita Springs Historical Society earlier this year, he was walking downtown one evening and thought about how the banyan tree doesn’t receive enough attention and attraction, especially at night.
“I thought to myself, this is such a beautiful tree, and it was just after sunset and the tree was just pitch black,” Botana said. “It looked like the whole square is kind of abandoned. What a great idea it would be to light it up at night and to really show off the tree and the magnificence of it for the community.”
Botana spoke with the historical society, city staff and ultimately City Council, which voted 4-3 in favor of Botana pursuing a design for the park. Remembering local history is a huge component of the design Botana will present to council next week.
“I would love to see the square set up as Pioneer Square, where we could show a timeline of the history of Bonita Springs from the time that the tree was planted to now and the different buildings that have been there through its history,” Botana said. “Maybe outline some of the founding families because there’s such a huge connection between the old Bonitians and the history of Bonita with that tree and square.”
The historical society isn’t the only group looking into beautifying the square. The city hired Miami-based town planners DPZ CoDesign to create a few concepts of how the land around the tree could be utilized as a public park space.
DPZ made its mark on Southwest Florida when it revitalized Fifth Avenue in Naples in the ’90s and is working on plans for Naples Design District. Although this isn’t nearly as big of a project for DPZ, it holds great importance for Bonita Springs, Botana said. “Back at the turn of the 20th century, there used to be a pavilion there and the locals would go in the evenings, and it became a slogan in Bonita. ‘Meet me at the Banyan Tree,’” he said. “The tree really does have its roots deep in Bonita’s history.”
The three design ideas DPZ presented at the last council meeting had more modern concepts for the downtown park area. “We were trying to think holistically,” said Galina Tachieva, managing partner of DPZ. “We were trying to think about the edges of the park, about the usefulness of the park, about its civic meaning for your downtown and the whole city.”
The first option presented involves removing the police substation that sits in the middle of the square with green space, a playground and a kids’ splash fountain. A plaza in the middle of a square would have a floor mural with the memorial plaza on the northwest corner of the square maintained in its current position.
Getting rid of the substation downtown is something council member Jesse Purdon wants to make sure is a good decision from the eyes of the Lee County Sheriff’s Office. “I know there isn’t somebody specifically in [the building] all the time, but there are numerous purposes,” he said. “They do store things in there and from a deterrent perspective it is nice to have a LCSO building downtown.”
The second option is to keep the police substation, with some improvements to the structure. “We believe [the substation] needs to be spruced up. It obviously needs to be renovated by adding some exterior space with four porches on each side,” Tachieva said.
A playground, splash fountain and the memorial plaza are also in the second design similar to the first option.
The third design is the most ambitious, taking away the substation while adding a pair of multi-purpose community halls and a courtyard complex for events. There would also be a secret garden botanical exhibit that could have educational activities or a butterfly garden.
Another aspect of this beatification project is integrating lighting on the banyan tree. Some possibilities are nighttime uplighting, decorative hanging fixtures or even digital projections that could have animations.
Council member Fred Forbes expressed concern about implementing permanent structures near the tree. “You don’t want to have very many permanent structures around. That tree grows, and it has downward roots and horizontal,” Forbes said. “The more you restrict the roots, it’s not going to do the tree a lot of good.”
Through a recent topographical study of the banyan tree funded through the historical society, Botana doesn’t think this development will damage the tree as it already undergoes maintenance to prevent overgrowth. If the canopies are consistently cut back, the tree won’t drop more roots because it will feel stable. “The current growth of the tree has been maintained by arborists and the aerial roots don’t grow out past the canopy of the leaves and they do keep the cut back so it can withstand hurricanes,” Botana said.
Bonita Springs has a budget item in its capital improvements program to begin the planning for the project, while hiring a landscape architect and engineers will be a separate process. Staff asked council to narrow down their preferences on what it would like to see for the park and come back with recommendations on what to pursue.
Botana is hoping that, if the city picks the historical society to be responsible for the project, it becomes a community effort. “We as a community can build this park together. That was the original concept that I had,” Botana said. “I never wanted this project to cost the city any money. If anything, I just wanted it to be the partner and give a blessing to it.”