Honolulu Journal; Pockmark on Paradise’s Landscape

The New York Times
By TODD S. PURDUM (NYT) 973 words

HONOLULU, Nov. 6 — It juts into the ocean at the eastern end of Waikiki Beach like some ghostly barge, its concrete arches crumbling, its curving windows broken, its 100-meter saltwater swimming pool stagnant and its 2,500 bleacher seats empty and forlorn. For 20 years, the War Memorial Natatorium has been a shuttered scar on this famous stretch of shoreline, a victim of municipal neglect and political deadlock.

But once it was the pride of Waikiki, and its dedication on Aug. 24, 1927, the 37th birthday of Duke Kahanamoku, the legendary local surfer and swimmer, was a gala evening. While the memorial’s official purpose was to honor the 101 Hawaiians who lost their lives in World War I, it stood as an equal tribute to the exploits of the beloved Duke, who won two gold medals at the 1912 Olympics and was credited with helping to revive surfing, the ancient sport of Hawaiian kings.

Now an effort to restore the old pool to some version of its glory days, when it rang with cheers for champions like Buster Crabbe and Johnny Weismuller (who set a record of 58 seconds for the 100-meter freestyle on opening day), has run into opposition. The fight has pitted local beachgoers against Honolulu’s mayor and civic boosters eager to restore Waikiki’s luster, and put environmentalists at odds with preservationists in the latest example of Hawaii’s perpetual effort to balance the pleasures of paradise with the economic realities of a tourist economy.

“I quite frankly am ashamed that we have this rotting hulk of a war memorial right in the heart of our beautiful waterfront,” said Honolulu’s mayor, Jeremy Harris, who has led the $11.5 million effort to restore the pool and the graceful colonnade that fronts it. “It’s on both the national and state historic registers, and as such, from a legal standpoint, it can’t be torn down. And from a moral standpoint, you shouldn’t tear it down, either.”

But a poll by The Honolulu Star-Bulletin last winter found that Oahu residents opposed restoring the pool two to one, and Mr. Harris’s plans have been at least partly blocked by a grass-roots group of residents, known as the Kaimana Beach Coalition, who fear that the restoration plan would not insure the quality of the water in the pool and would despoil Sans Souci Beach, a quiet strip of sand just to the east, under the shadow of Diamond Head. For years, Sans Souci has been a peaceful refuge from the tourist crush of Waikiki, and it still retains the lazy feel that in territorial days drew Robert Louis Stevenson to a genteel hotel on the site.

“I really care about that beach,” said Rick Bernstein, 54, a yoga teacher who leads the coalition and has lived here for 34 years. He wants the pool torn down to make way for a new 400-foot beach with only the memorial archway restored. “That beach is like a lung for the people of Honolulu. All kinds of people come and gather at all different times of day and night.”

Last spring, the opponents of restoration won one round when a Circuit Court judge ruled that any new pool would have to comply with clarity and water quality standards for freshwater pools. City officials say compliance is impossible. But this summer, another judge refused to block the city from beginning restoration of the bleachers, changing rooms and archways on the land side while the State Health Department draws up new regulations specifying standards for saltwater pools. Now, rusted steel rods and crumbling concrete are being replaced, and a new head will be cast for a majestic bald eagle on the facade.

City officials do not dispute that the original pool was an engineering disaster almost from the start. A deep, uneven sand bottom (to accommodate diving towers) hindered the flow of coastal current, and four 24-inch openings on each side proved hopelessly inadequate for re-circulating ocean water to keep the pool clean. It was finally closed as a health hazard in 1979. But officials say their new plan, together with a pair of groins to be built out into the ocean to trap passing drift, means the water quality in the new pool will be the same as in the ocean.

But opponents say they know of no other public saltwater swimming pools in the United States, and state health officials have warned that it may be impossible to guarantee adequate water clarity for lifeguards to see swimmers on the bottom. Opponents also fear that the new groins would change the flow of current to Sans Souci Beach, making the water there stagnant, though city officials sharply dispute that.

Already, the issue has prompted political infighting. In the face of opposition from the City Council, Mayor Harris said he dropped any plan of using the pool for nighttime water ballets or hula shows to help finance the estimated $300,000 annual maintenance costs. Mr. Harris’s predecessor as mayor, Frank Fasi, who opposes restoring the pool, has threatened to run against him next year.

“If there was a swimming pool that was an enclosed, chlorinated swimming pool, it would be a little redundant,” said Jim Bickerton, a lawyer for the pool opponents who are about to file an appeal with the State Supreme Court to try to block further construction until the city can show it can meet government requirements for operating a pool. “But if that’s what the community felt would be good, we don’t have any problem with that.”

But, Mr. Bickerton added, “doing it a way that’s either going to be over-commercialized or waste the ocean frontage because it’s going to be a white elephant that can never open doesn’t make sense.”

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company