Don’t abandon existing plan for Natatorium

Honolulu Star-Advertiser, May 24, 2014

Editorial: Our View

After decades of disagreements over what to do about the crumbling and long-closed Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium, the city and state governments joined forces last year on an affordable and respectful plan that would preserve the memorial’s distinctive arches and demolish the dangerously corroded swimming pool and stadium and replace those elements with a public memorial beach.

That plan, which is now under environmental review, is consistent with the 2009 recommendations of the Waikiki Natatorium Task Force, a city advisory group comprising a diverse group of stakeholders. The group heard impassioned pleas from community members who want to fully restore the Natatorium at all cost, and others who were equally insistent that the once-grand structure had degraded into an inaccessible eyesore, so should be torn down before it collapses into the ocean off Kaimana Beach.

The task force heard from all quarters and completed laborious reading and research before voting 9-3 on what should be considered a meaningful compromise that serves current and future Hawaii taxpayers as well as the memories of the World War I veterans to which the landmark is dedicated.

The task force’s recommendation was to restore the Beaux Arts arches and move them slightly inland, tear out the decaying saltwater pool and surrounding grandstand seating, and devote the newly available land to expanding the adjacent public beach.

This plan is the right one and the city and state should continue to pursue it, despite the intervention this week of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The national preservation group added the 87-year-old Natatorium to its list of “national treasures,” re-energizing opposition to demolishing any part of the monument and raising hopes that major donors might emerge to help fund a restoration.

But this action should not deter the state and city from moving ahead. Similar help has been sought in the past, and the Natatorium is already recognized as an architectural landmark on the National Register of Historic Places and has a place on Hawaii’s Register of Historic Places.

The Natatorium has been closed since 1979, off limits to swimmers as too risky. Those who claim that partial demolition would disrespect the memories of Hawaii’s long-departed World War I veterans ignore the fact that to allow the Natatorium to persist in its present squalid state is a much greater insult. Nor is it fair to ask Hawaii taxpayers to pay the estimated $70 million it would cost to fully restore the site — which does not include what would be very costly upkeep that likely would require commercializing the facility.

By contrast, tearing out the pool and bleachers and developing a free, public memorial beach are estimated to cost $18.4 million.

The Waikiki Natatorium’s place in Hawaii’s historical record is secure, but it must adapt to the current landscape. It is inconceivable that such a saltwater stadium would be built in Waikiki today, with all we know about the science of beach erosion and climate change. Fully restoring the Natatorium would be akin to building it anew, which is neither a sound financial nor environmental decision.

The community must move forward with the fair compromise embraced by the city and state.

The Next Natatorium

Honolulu Star-Advertiser
By Lee Catterall

Abercrombie’s idea to turn the Waikiki landmark into a beach volleyball venue has rekindled the long debate over the crumbling property

As Gov. Neil Abercrombie develops his idea to turn the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium into a beach volleyball court, supporters and opponents once again have lined up for battle.


The facade and arches of the Natatorium mask the crumbling saltwater pool behind it. The transfer of the property to full state control, along with a proposal to restore the bleachers and build a beach volleyball court over the pool structure, has renewed debate over the Natatorium’s future.

While saving the pool is the best alternative, turning the structure into a volleyball facility with bleachers remains a “sensible course of action, financially, environmentally, historically and every way else,” said Donna L. Ching, vice president of Friends of the Natatorium.

Demolishing the Natatorium, moving its iconic arches inland and returning the site to its natural state would create “a last little peaceful oasis and outlet for people who live in a very crowded environment,” said James Bickerton, attorney for the Kaimana Beach Coalition.

While their solutions are radically different, everyone involved in this debate seems to agree that leaving the crumbling facility to slowly rot — in other words, the status quo — is not an option. There also is broad agreement that elements of the memorial should be preserved in some form. Other than that, the debate over the Waikiki landmark’s future has been bitterly divisive.

The memorial was built in 1927 to honor the veterans of World War I and is included in the National Register of Historic Places. The pool where Duke Kahanamoku swam was closed in 1979 after being deemed a health and safety hazard. In 1998, then-Mayor Jeremy Harris authorized $11.5 million for complete restoration, but the next mayor, Mufi Hannemann, canceled the plan and assigned a task force in 2009 to assess the issue. The task force recommended that the memorial’s arches be reconstructed and moved inland and that the pool and bleachers razed to create additional beach space.

Since then, not much has happened. The state owns the Natatorium, but the property has been operated by the city under executive order. Abercrombie and Mayor Peter Carlisle have agreed to return control of the Natatorium to the state, and Abercrombie intends to put the site to better use than its current state of virtual abandonment.

In one of numerous e-mails involving Abercrombie aides obtained by Bickerton, Michael Ng, a policy adviser for the Abercrombie administration, wrote in August that the governor “wants to keep the main structure intact and create a world-class venue for beach volleyball. We probably can’t keep the pool — we’d need to do something like build the volleyball court on piles IN the pool.”

To restore the structure to some measure of its former glory will cost money; how much is anyone’s guess. The task force estimated that rebuilding the pool would cost $60 million. Rebuilding the structure in any way would be expensive, Bickerton said. He suggested that a $100 million estimate “doesn’t seem out of line.”

Besides the cost, there’s the question of the impact of various alternatives to this slice of Waikiki.

With “large capital costs and heavy ongoing maintenance,” Bickerton said, state officials can be expected not to allow the natatorium to be idle, deciding, “We should do something with it. We should have shows there.”

“Well,” he added, “when you have shows there, where do I park when I want to just go with my kids for a swim lesson, or launch my one-man canoe, or just sit and watch the sunset, which people can do right now? What happens to all that?”

Kapiolani Park is like New York City’s Central Park, Bickerton said. “It’s a public resource and it’s for the public by the public, and there’s no commercial activity in the park.”

Ching said Bickerton’s concern is “a red herring.” She noted that 300,000 people a year visit the nearby Waikiki Aquarium, most of them walking because there is no parking on that property. Other events occur at Kapiolani Park, which “is the center of lots of events that happen that are very large-scale and attract a lot of people to the park.”

Bickerton maintains that replacing the Natatorium with a volleyball court would reduce precious shoreline access in an area where little exists. “I can build a sand arena anywhere for volleyball,” he said, “but there’s only so many places where I can get to the ocean to swim, because it’s sandy, because it’s calm, or it’s because it’s near my house or where people live.”

However, Ching said restoring the Natatorium site to its original condition would not bring back sand. Photographs show rocks in that spot, because “that’s the natural state of the shoreline in that area. If you look at pictures that were taken before the Natatorium was built, there was no sand there.”

“There’s not really a restoration of the beach to be done,” Ching said. “You’d be building an artificial beach along the shoreline there. You’d have to reconstruct something.”

Bickerton said he expects the Abercrombie administration will use the new Public Land Development Corp., which is exempt from many land use and zoning rules, to achieve its ends, and idea that Abercrombie himself has recommended.

“This is a whole coterie of people, and it’s some of the same people who are behind the PLDC, and this is actually one of the reasons the PLDC was brought in, because this is the most expensive piece of real estate that the state owns,” Bickerton said. “It’s the most valuable, and it’s been coveted by commercial interests for years, and this is their chance to get it with minimal environmental and regulatory oversight.”

E-mail communication on the issue with the governor’s office has included the Peter Apo Co., a corporate consulting firm; and Leo A Daly, an architectural company where Ching is director of business development. However, Ching said she has not been motivated by the association. She said she took the position with Friends of the Natatorium in 1994, a decade before beginning work at Daly.

“Restoring the pool and letting people swim in it would be a touchdown,” Ching said. But she recognizes that may be too difficult: “We’re on our own 20-yard line, and just need first down at this point,” she said. For Friends of the Natatorium, that means supporting the governor’s plan.

“We just want to move the chains down the field. … whether it’s going to be a pass play or a run, whether it’s going to be a pool or volleyball or something else, then you huddle up with your people and you decide we’re going to give the ball to this guy or we’re going to throw it this way and this is what we’re going to do.”

Off the Beat: Deception at Honolulu Hale

Civil Beat
By The Civil Beat Staff

There’s a shroud over Honolulu Hale, but it can’t hide the black eye.

We’ve been bothered this week by a recently released string of emails involving the future of the Waikiki Natatorium.

Those emails outlined how the state plans to take back the World War II monument from Honolulu’s control.

But they also showed how city and state officials planned to cover up the news by intentionally playing dumb with members of the media. Some of this crossed the line into outright lying.

This is not OK. You should be outraged.

Our expectation is that when we ask questions, particularly of our government officials, that we are getting truthful answers that can be backed up by real facts.

This was not the case with the Waikiki Natatorium. Public relations strategizing and deception took over.

The Natatorium has been the focus of controversy for decades. Several citizen groups have been battling for years over what should be done with the site.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s staff was worried about public backlash for his plan to turn the memorial into a beach volleyball arena.

There was also the Honolulu mayor’s race to consider.

Mayor Peter Carlisle was in a hotly contested primary, and the implication from the emails is that city officials didn’t want voters to know that $750,000 was likely wasted on studies that would no longer be useful.

While the state’s plan to spin the situation isn’t necessarily surprising, the city’s tactics reached a level of deception that should be unacceptable.

As members of the public and the media began to ask questions about the Natatorium — including two Civil Beat reporters — city officials orchestrated a campaign to frustrate and mislead those individuals by dodging questions and playing semantics.

One of the most egregious examples of this comes from Carlisle’s press secretary, Louise Kim McCoy.

When asked by KITV reporter Catherine Cruz if an environmental impact statement for the Natatorium had been cancelled, Kim McCoy told her it hadn’t.

But in an email to her city colleagues, Kim McCoy said Cruz “did NOT ask about the status of the EIS so I did not have to say it was put on hold.”

You can read much more about the emails and what they said in Civil Beat’s stories earlier this week.

But let’s call this what it is — a violation of the public’s trust. It shouldn’t be taken lightly.

DISCUSSION: Should city and state officials answer questions truthfully and give the public information it asks for?

Natatorium vote prudent

Honolulu Star-Bulletin

What to do about the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium has been in dispute since at least 1979, when the saltwater pool where Duke Kahanamoku once swam laps was shuttered as a health hazard.

Over the years since, the Star-Bulletin has editorialized in favor of preserving the arched monument to World War I veterans and restoring the dilapidated oceanside pool and bleachers—but the cost of the project has risen exorbitantly with time as the structures have continued to weaken and the political bickering has intensified.

Now that a mayoral advisory panel has voted, Honolulu’s government and its citizens would be wise to seriously consider its recommendations.

The task force, which included people devoted to restoring the Natatorium at any cost and others who want to demolish it, voted 9-3 Thursday to tear down the bleachers and pool, relocate the memorial arch to Kapiolani Park’s nearby Hau Tree Arbor and build two groins to expand adjacent Kaimana Beach.

That recommendation now goes to Mayor Mufi Hannemann; he is known to favor demolition.

The panel has made a fiscally prudent recommendation that would honor World War I veterans by preserving the distinctive memorial archway, albeit in a new, nearby location, and improve Oahu’s main tourism district by widening popular Kaimana Beach, clearing now-obstructed ocean views and removing the eyesore that the 82-year-old saltwater pool sadly has become.

The city estimated the cost of that option to be $15.1 million. By comparison, stabilization and restoration of the memorial and pool was put at $57 million.

Skeptics are correct, however, to urge caution in the beach expansion, noting that past efforts, in Waikiki and elsewhere, have not always gone as planned.

Members of the Friends of the Natatorium oppose the task force’s recommendations, and have vowed to continue their uphill battle to save the historic landmark, which was built in 1927.

But the harsh reality is that if they could not come up with millions and millions of dollars in donations needed from the tourist industry and military organizations when Hawaii’s economy was thriving, it is unlikely that their fundraising efforts will be any more successful now, as the state and the nation struggle through a bleak economy.

The poor condition of the memorial is disrespectful to veterans, and it may be better to refurbish and relocate the archway now than to keep fighting over the matter as the monument continues to degrade.

Natatorium: City should save essence of memorial

Honolulu Advertiser

It’s Waikiki’s most famous symbol of municipal neglect.

The crumbling War Memorial Natatorium — more than 80 years old and closed for the last 30 — remains a silent rebuke to the years of bitter, still unresolved debate over its future, into which millions of taxpayer dollars have been poured.

It’s long past time to make a decision about the natatorium’s fate, painful as it may be. With the exception of the restored Beaux-Arts style arch and facade, the monument has become a deterioriating safety hazard — hardly a fitting tribute to the 101 World War I veterans it was meant to honor.

Salt water, relentlessly wearing down the concrete pool walls and deck, caused part of the pool deck to collapse in 2004. Without action, the structure will continue to slowly crumble into the sea, perhaps taking the bleachers and the facade with it.

So it’s a welcome sign to see Mayor Hannemann administration’s latest efforts to finally resolve this problem. Public meetings that are planned should offer residents clear choices on the pros and cons of various options, including one to fully restore the pool and bleachers — the primary point of contention.

The natatorium’s defenders, including the Friends of the Natatorium, make a reasonable argument that the pool is an integral part of the historic monument, which opened with Duke Kahanamoku’s inaugural swim in 1927.

Nonetheless, it’s unlikely the city can afford to pay for a full restoration. So unless a workable plan involving a public-private partnership can be forged, it’s time to move on: Save what can be saved, pay proper respect to our war veterans, and put the shoreline back to public use, with or without a pool.

Natatorium: Time for Harris to let go

Honolulu Advertiser

“It seems completely illogical,” says the director of the Waikiki Aquarium in what may be the understatement of the year.

Dr. Andrew Rossiter was referring to the obduracy of outgoing Mayor Jeremy Harris in the matter of the crumbling Natatorium.

Harris insists he’s going to move ahead with a plan to shore up the sagging structure, even though the City Council and the incoming mayor, Mufi Hannemann, have indicated their opposition to the project.

Hannemann says he’ll halt the project as soon as he takes office.

Given that Harris’ plan involves driving more than 80 pilings into the reef below the Natatorium, it simply doesn’t make sense to undertake this project when it’s sure to be abandoned three weeks later.

Rossiter, meanwhile, warns that the pile-driving will be detrimental to the fish in his charge, and possibly to the structure that houses them.

We’re disturbed by the notion of pile-driving on the reef, and the ecological damage that’s sure to do.

Citing a consultant, Harris says the structure could collapse if it isn’t shored up. But it’s the pool and deck structure that Harris is rushing to save, and it’s the pool and deck structure that likely will be removed in the end, leaving the memorial and bathrooms — and a restored stretch of beach.

Throwing $6 million at this project at this time is “completely illogical” — to say the least.

Natatorium: time for the pool to go

Honolulu Advertiser

The one thing that can be said with certainty about the Waikiki Natatorium is that no one will be happy with the ultimate solution to this aging, crumbling war memorial.

There are those who would see the Natatorium restored to its 1927 glory as a memorial to those who served in World War I and as a nod to Hawai’i’s impressive aquatic history.

There are those who say the Natatorium has served its time, and the best thing to do is tear it down and restore the beach to its natural condition, as much as that is possible.

The third option would be to maintain the facade of the Natatorium, which is indeed the physical face of the memorial for those who approach from land, while returning to the sea the crumbling pool and other oceanfront facilities.

That third option appears to make the most sense. Efforts to come up with a common-sense solution have, unhappily, been hampered by state-city conflict, delays on rule-making, environmental assessments and the like. And while officials dithered, the structure continued to deteriorate.

There has been some progress. The facade has been restored, and new restrooms and other facilities have been installed.

But continued structural damage to the pool and surrounding structures makes it increasingly difficult to conclude the entire facility can be saved.

Now, there’s a proposal to spend some $6 million not to restore the pool but simply to stop the process of deterioration under way. Getting to the point where the pool is once again safe for swimming would cost millions more and would pose substantial engineering challenges.

There is no wrong and no right in this matter. Surely we would wish to preserve the Natatorium as originally built in deference to those it was meant to honor.

But it is equally clear that those who are honored by the Natatorium would not accept pouring good money after bad in an effort to save that which may not be salvageable.

We have long argued that the best of a bad situation would be to preserve the memorial arch that is the face of the Natatorium as one approaches the beach. Beyond that, options include filling in the one-time swimming pool as a beachfront volleyball venue or — perhaps most sensibly — restoring the beach to its original condition, including the construction of new seawalls to protect the facade and adjoining Kaimana Beach.

That would be a form of “adaptive reuse,” a concept often used to preserve historic structures once their original purpose has been lost.

Since the Natatorium was erected, scores of swimming pools have been built in Hawai’i, many of Olympic quality. The need for venues where people can swim with dreams of matching the late, great Duke Kahanamoku has been met.

We now recognize that every inch of beachfront is precious. Why not restore the beachfront there, where every visitor will pass first through an archway that reminds us of the sacrifices of those who fought and died to protect the freedoms we now enjoy?