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.