Council support for Natatorium weakening

Honolulu Advertiser
Dingeman Robbie; Kobayashi Ken
Advertiser Final

By Robbie Dingeman and Ken Kobayashi, ADVERTISER STAFF WRITERS

Support on the Honolulu City Council for full restoration of the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium appears to be ebbing, especially after a judge yesterday blocked the start of the project.

Council members were torn over the issue when they voted 6-3 last December to restore the Natatorium despite concerns by some critics that the facility’s saltwater pool could pose a health hazard. In order to revoke the permit needed to proceed, two Council members would have to change their votes.

“I think the support for the Natatorium on the Council is shifting,” Council Chairman Jon Yoshimura said yesterday.

He said he believes the Council, administration and community probably will find a compromise that stops short of full restoration. Some have proposed restoring the Natatorium’s ornate memorial arch but demolishing the pool.

The pool was built in 1927 as a memorial to World War I veterans. It deteriorated over the years and was closed in 1979 because of health and safety concerns.

In the latest setback to restoration, Circuit Judge Gail Nakatani yesterday issued a restraining order preventing the city from starting renovation work until she holds another hearing in the case on July 9.

At that hearing, Nakatani is to consider a request to extend the restraining order until city officials obtains all necessary government approvals for the project.

James Bickerton, lawyer for the Kaimana Beach Coalition which challenged the project, said it may take as long as a year for city officials to get approvals from the Army Corps of Engineers, the state Department of Health and the state Board of Land and Natural Resources.

In issuing the temporary restraining order, the judge indicated she agreed with the coalition’s argument that the city is required to obtain the approvals and permits before any work can begin. The city initially was to have begun renovation work on the arch on Monday.

The coalition advocates restoring the memorial arch, but wants the seaward wall of the facility torn down to make way for a beach.

“We’re pleased that the court has recognized the need for coherent planning and has rejected the concept of planning by bulldozer,” Bickerton said.

Yoshimura, who opposed full restoration when the Council approved the project, said he thinks a majority of the community has always opposed repairing the pool. “I think the numbers have grown because of the public’s growing frustration with the economy,” he said.

Yoshimura said he thinks many taxpayers see spending millions of dollars on the pool as a prime example of government waste.

Earlier this year, there were questions when Council members discovered the estimate for renovations could exceed the amount initially approved. The restoration was to cost $11.5 million.

Corporation Counsel David Arakawa said the city administration is disappointed by the judge’s action and will challenge it. “Full restoration is the right thing to do, and Mayor (Jeremy) Harris is committed to that,” he said.

Councilman Duke Bainum, who represents Waikiki, also maintains full restoration “is the right thing to do.” But Bainum said he will change his position on the project if either of two things happen: if health and safety issues aren’t addressed or if the cost soars beyond the allocated $11.5 million.

“My concern is the possibility of cost overruns with a prolonged court battle,” he said.

Yesterday, Gov. Ben Cayetano said he thinks it’s becoming obvious that there should be a compromise on restoration, which he once supported.

“The pool, more and more, does not seem like a good idea,” Cayetano said. “If you’re going to make it a pool, then I think it should be a freshwater pool because – a saltwater pool – I think you’ll have all kinds of problems.”

In other Council action yesterday, members Donna Mercado Kim and Mufi Hannemann introduced a resolution to request the mayor to modify the permit for the project to allow restoration of the arch but not the pool.

“Clearly, it’s in the mayor’s court now,” Hannemann said. “I believe the majority of the Council is ready and they were ready (Wednesday) to call for a scaled-down version of the Natatorium.”

Hannemann was the first of the six who supported the project in December to publicly change his mind in recent weeks.