City pushes ahead on Natatorium plan

Honolulu Star-Bulletin
By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Star-Bulletin

Construction fences will go up tomorrow, but a citizens’ group says it will challenge the city with a new lawsuit

Star-Bulletin file photo
Mayor Jeremy Harris says construction will begin
as scheduled this month on the restoration of the
Waikiki War Memorial and Natatorium, despite a
judge’s decision that could prevent the pool
from reopening.

Mayor Jeremy Harris is pressing ahead with an $11.5 million renovation of the Waikiki War Memorial and Natatorium despite a blow dealt by a Circuit Court judge.

Judge Gail Nakatani’s decision yesterday defined the natatorium as a swimming pool. That could stop the facility’s opening by requiring the city to obtain a permit from the state Health Department.

Health Director Bruce Anderson questions whether the city can meet even a new set of rules his department must now create governing operation of saltwater pools.

Nakatani’s decision also has given opponents hope that the uncertainty will spill over to the City Council, where several members want to discuss the possibility of revoking a shoreline management permit for the project.

Construction fences will go up tomorrow around the natatorium, mayoral spokesman Jerry Silva said. Work on the facade could begin as early as next week.

The city still needs approval from the Health Department and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct underwater groins, stretching toward the ocean, designed to improve circulation of the water in the pool.

Those approvals aren’t considered major obstacles.

But the attorney for Kaimana Beach Coalition, which brought the lawsuit against the city, said the city should not begin the project until it receives all permits.

Jim Bickerton said his clients will likely take the city back to court when the city does begin construction because the shoreline management permit for the project requires all government permits must first be obtained.

“If they go ahead and start any kind of construction, we will block them,” Bickerton said.

Councilwoman Donna Mercado Kim, who opposes full restoration, said “it’s irresponsible and highly arrogant of them to proceed, even with the facade portion.”

The Health Department will form an advisory committee to come up with recommendations for rules governing saltwater pools, Anderson said. He doesn’t expect the rules to be completed for “at least six months and more likely a year or more.”

There also aren’t other saltwater pools in the country that the city can look to for guidance on the rules, Anderson said. “We’re forging new ground here.”

The key change will involve bacterial levels. Rules for freshwater pools require chlorination, an impossibility in the open-ended natatorium.

His main concern continues to be turbidity, or clarity of water. Health inspectors will have to be able to see a round, black, 8-inch disc at the bottom of the 7-foot pool or the pool won’t open, he said.

City officials insist that they will be able to meet both acceptable bacterial levels and the clarity test with their new technology. “It would be foolhardy to get into this (construction) unless they have reasonable assurances (the concerns) can be addressed,” Anderson said.

“It’s ridiculous for them to go forward with construction when there are no rules that can be made applicable to this saltwater swimming pool that would make it safe,” said Rick Bernstein, spokesman for Kaimana Beach Coalition.

City Corporation Counsel David Arakawa said that won’t be a problem. “The water quality inside the natatorium is supposed to be the same as the water quality outside the natatorium,” he said. “If they aren’t going to comply, they’d have to close down the whole beach at Waikiki.”

The city will appeal Nakatani’s decision. “The ruling is ludicrous,” Harris said. “We have always had the highest concern for public health and safety. The restored natatorium has been designed by experts to do that and will be operated in the same way.”

Arakawa said the city hired University of Hawaii professor Roger Fujioka to come up with recommended operating rules for the pool to help satisfy public concerns.

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Frequently asked questions about Natatorium

Question: When was the Natatorium first built and why?
Answer: It was open in 1927 as a memorial to Americans who fought and died in World War I. Swim meets and demonstrations were held.

Q: Why was it closed down?
A: It was shut down in 1979 following health concerns.

Q: What does Mayor Jeremy Harris’ plan entail?
A: Harris wants full restoration of the pool. He believes new technology will eliminate the water circulation problems of the past.

Q: What is the Kaimana Beach Coalition and why does it oppose full restoration?
A: The core members of the group are frequent visitors to Kaimana Beach, the area just Diamond Head of the Natatorium. They say the pool cannot be made safe and restoration is a waste of money. They also fear full restoration would harm Kaimana and that the city will put up a tourist show stadium.

Q: What is the alternative to spending $11.5 million for full restoration and why doesn’t the mayor like that plan?
A: Kaimana Beach Coalition wants the city to just keep the facade and tear down the rest of the site, then put in a sand beach with volleyball courts. It estimates the plan would cost $6 million. The administration says leaving just the facade would cost just as much as full restoration. It also points out that the Natatorium is on the state and federal registers of historic places.

Q: Which Council members voted to approve the project?
A: John Henry Felix and Duke Bainum were the earliest and most vocal supporters. Others voting for a shoreline management permit for the project were John DeSoto, Mufi Hannemann Rene Mansho and Andy Mirikitani. Hannemann says new information might change his mind.

Q: Which Council members oppose the project?
A: Steve Holmes, Donna Mercado Kim and Jon Yoshimura have consistently opposed the project.

Q: What was the lawsuit about?
A: The attorney general’s office issued an opinion that the Health Department had no jurisdiction because the Natatorium falls outside the definition of a swimming pool. Kaimana Beach Coalition challenged and won.

Q: What do Council members opposed to the project intend to do now?
A: Kim and Hannemann have persuaded Yoshimura, the Council chairman, to place on the June 30 Council agenda a resolution revoking the shoreline management permit granted last year.

By Gordon Y.K. Pang, Star-Bulletin