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Bert The Bluff Oak Waits For Fate

The livelihood of Bert could be decided tomorrow morning.

Bert, a 200-year-old bluff oak tree, has been in jeopardy for two years after plans were created by Grimshaw Architects to renovate and expand the University of Florida’s Nuclear Sciences Building.

Four plans, two that spare the tree and two that don’t, will be presented to the University of Florida’s Lakes, Vegetation and Landscaping Advisory Committee in the main conference room of the UF Department of Planning, Design and Construction at 9:30 a.m.

Bert, a 36-inch-diameter oak, is just one of seven heritage trees near the University of Florida’s College of Engineering.

The heritage trees are considered to each have individual historic value but may be torn down to make room for the $53 million project addition called NEXUS.

The College of Engineering would like the NEXUS building to be a centrally located hub near the J. Wayne Reitz Union and its populated walkways. The goal is for the building to highlight innovative changes in the college and bring the engineering community together.

Nexus is a 90,000-square-foot structure that will incorporate advanced technology and encourage cross-disciplinary collaboration. It will house the Engineering Innovation Institute and the Engineering Leadership Institute, along with modern prototyping, biotech, communication and design labs.

The Nuclear Sciences Building, considered outdated by the college, will also receive a 10,000-square-foot renovation.

When students and staff heard about the plans, they took to social media to challenge the original designs.

After an outpour of support on Twitter and Facebook and over 2,000 signatures on an online petition, the committee asked architects to create two additional plans that avoided destroying the tree.

The new plans are ready a month after architects were asked to submit building footprints that saved as many heritage trees as possible with a specific focus on Bert. At the last meeting, the committee suggested making the atrium smaller and the building narrower.

The first alternative plan, called Parallel Bars, would save Bert and four of seven heritage trees in the area. A second alternative plan, called Jenga, would save Bert and three of the heritage trees.

The two other plans do save some of the other heritage trees, but Bert is not one of them.

Gail Hansen de Chapman, Committee Chair of the Lakes, Vegetation and Landscaping Committee, said that the committee members strongly believe the trees should be saved. She believes the two plans that require the trees be removed will be disregarded.

Many of the current and former committee members and faculty in the Forestry Department know that Bert is special because of its rarity and size, making it worth a little extra protection and support, she said.

“From what I have seen with the new plans, I do believe we can work out a compromise,” she said. “[The College of Engineering] can get the building they want and need, and we can save Bert and some of the other heritage trees.”

The committee has the power to choose if the tree will be removed, transplanted, replaced or mitigated based on the building design and nearby construction pursuits. The expected completion date is December 2016.

“I’m sure that the committee will endorse the plans that will save the most trees,” she said.

Jason Smith, associate professor of forest pathology in the College of Forest Resources and Conversation, has been at the forefront of the efforts to save Bert. 

“If we want to call ourselves a tree campus and a tree city, we need to put our money where our mouth is and protect these significant trees,” Smith said.

View the Campus Master Plan for more details

Sam Burroughs contributed to this story.

Ashley is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.