Murky Memorial

An essay by Rick Bernstein
Published in the Honolulu Weekly, August 20, 1997

The people of Honolulu may soon lose something very special – a rare recreational haven along the south shore for locals – to monied interests and the tourist industry.

Kaimana Beach, arguably the last local beach in Waikiki, will be severely affected by an $11.5 million plan to renovate the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium. Mayor Jeremy Harris, in an attempt to generate revenue for city coffers, is creating a conundrum of historic proportions.

The city made a June announcement regarding the restoration of the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium: Plans call for turning this long-suffering monument into a commercial tourist destination with a swimming pool, 2,500 seat entertainment stadium, gift shop, snack shop and museum.

The restoration could dramatically limit accessibility to this area for local residents, who will have to compete for limited parking and space at this popular and much-used area.

Many have voiced concerns that the ambiance of this serene beach that Robert Louis Stevenson called Sans Souci, or “carefree,” will be destroyed by the incursion of commercial interests.

Others are concerned that the commercialization of the Waikiki War Memorial represents a perversion of its original conception, as a peaceful place to remember the Hawai’i veterans who sacrificed their lives in the First World War. The same applies to Kapi’olani Park, which was created for the peaceful enjoyment of the citizens of Honolulu.

Throughout the community, there is talk that the government is encroaching on public areas set aside for the citizens of O’ahu in service of the tourist industry. Given the state of Hawai’i’s economy, it is understandable that Mayor Harris is looking for an opportunity to generate revenue. The Natatorium is indeed an opportunity. But is this a wise move if it interferes with the enjoyment of thousands of people who depend on this special place for recreation?

The current debate over the Natatorium is just one more example of the way Honolulu officials are commercializing and urbanizing the island.

The troubled history of the Natatorium begins in 1921, when the city government appropriated $250,000 to “provide a memorial to the men and women of Hawai’i who served during the great war.” This memorial included a 100-meter swimming pool. A design competition was held and won by architect Louis P. Hobart. In 1927, the Natatorium was constructed and completed by a company owned by Mr. T.L. Cliff.

Two short years later there were problems. A Honolulu Star Bulletin article entitled “When will something be done?” described the deplorable condition of the Natatorium and grounds as maintained by the City and County of Honolulu. (Some things never change.)

The same year, Gov. Wallace R. Farrington passed responsibility for care and maintenance on to the Territory of Hawaii Department of Public Works and away from the jurisdiction of the City and County of Honolulu, the first of many shifts of responsibility for this well-intentioned but ill-conceived salt water swimming pool, which has been a bureaucratic hot potato ever since.

During this same year, the pool was dredged, due to design flaws, and the deep section was enlarged. It was during these times that Duke Kahanamoku, Buster Crabbe, Johnny Weismuller and many other famous swimmers competed in this 100-meter saltwater pool. Since then, competitive swimming has switched to fresh water pools, rendering salt water pools obsolete for competition.

In 1949, the Natatorium was refurbished for $81,000 – the last money ever spent by any agency on this constantly decaying structure. In the same year, care and maintenance was handed back to the City and County Department of Parks and Recreation. Throughout the 70 years of its existence, there have been many attempts to demolish the Natatorium and return the area to a beach.

As early as 1965, the City Council voted to demolish the Natatorium upon the recommendation of Mayor Neal S. Blaisdell.

In 1982, Mayor Eileen Anderson commissioned a study entitled “Waikiki 2000,” which recommended the demolition of the Natatorium, restoration of the Arch and reconstruction of the beach. The same year, House Concurrent Resolution 173 was passed, declaring essentially the same thing that “Waikiki 2000” recommended, but adding that there shall be no commercial activity whatsoever in the Natatorium.

In 1986, the Friends of the Natatorium came into prominence and began lobbying and garnering public support.

By 1990, the state and the city decided that a complete restoration should be pursued. This decision was based upon a detailed planning report outlining both a complete restoration of the bleachers and the pool, with an alternative of demolishing the bleachers and pool and restoring the beach. The report, prepared by Leo Daly, stated that the costs of both would be about the same – between $11 and $l2 million.

In 1993, Daly’s cost estimates for the beach restoration were called “more elaborate than necessary” by then-Chief City Planner Robin Foster. In fact, a study done in 1985 by CJS Group Architects found that the cost of restoring the beach would be about $4.6 million.

Yet, Daly’s plans and cost comparisons appear to have swayed government opinion on what course of action to follow. The push was on to restore the Natatorium.

Only a few members of the Friends of the Natatorium have rallied in the trenches for a complete restoration. The active members number a few dozen at most. The original members were a scrappy group of gung-ho patriots and restoration enthusiasts. They were savvy to the ways of government and developed and worked a plan. Their tenacity was exemplary, and for 11 years they endeavored to see their dream for a restored Natatorium become a reality.

Members of the new and beefed up board of directors, it should be noted, include notable real estate executives, developers, individuals well connected to government, hotel industry leaders and members of old Island families.

The original pure dream of a Natatorium for the remembrance of the veterans of the First World War, without commercialization, was somehow lost along the way. Were the Friends’ intentions compromised by those who could benefit from the organization’s plans and years of hard work?

Through the years, there have been many problems with the pool. In 1963, the Natatorium was closed due to poor water quality. Water quality is still a major concern of State Health Director Bruce Anderson. who wrote in a March 7 letter to Mayor Jeremy Harris, “The purpose of this letter is to inform you of some serious concerns we have about the health and safety of the pool and to strongly recommend that you look at possible alternatives.”

Anderson stated, “Turbidity in the old pool was always a problem. Young children were taught to swim at the beach nearby because it was too dangerous to swim in the pool. If anone got in trouble and went underwater, it would be difficult to find them before it was too late. This is the reason current rules require that an 8-inch black object on the bottom of any public pool be clearly visible from the surface: if you can’t see it, the pool is immediately closed.

Without filtration, there is little that can be done to reduce turbidity of the water entering the pool to make it safe to swim. This should be a significant liability concern.”

Turbidity in the waters of Waikiki today is worse than it was in the old days. One reason is that man-made sand was used to fill in Fort DeRussy Beach in the 1980s. The silt from that sand pollutes Waikiki to this day. The bottom of the ocean cannot be seen at Waikiki at high tide, or when the surf is up. The clarity of pool water is only as good as the water in the ocean surrounding it.

Anderson also stated, “There is little that can be done about the health risks from staphylococcus bacteria that we can expect wherever large numbers of people swim and circulation is restricted by walls. Boils and ear infections were often reported from swimming in the old pool, and they will be a problem in any salt water pool, because it is practically impossible to disinfect salt water.”

Not mentioned in this letter is a bacterial time bomb lurking just 25 yards from the ewa all of the Natatorium, where the primary water intake opening for the pool is found. This is the sewage-outfall pipe from a 85,000 gallon Monk Seal tank of the Waikiki Aquarium. While this water is processed and filtered before it is released into the ocean, instances of mechanical failure are possible, and one such failure took place in 1994.

If a spill occurs, will the Natatorium be closed? How will it be determined if bacterial waste has colonized the pool?

The ocean has sufficient tidal movement to scour reefs of bacterial build-up, while the walled pool may not. The Environmental Impact Statement for the Natatorium renovation states. “There could also be times when discharge from the Waikiki Aquarium or the neighboring storm drains results in degraded water quality along this coast.” The EIS does not mention any potential danger from the Monk Seal tank.

The renovation plans call for large openings to be cut out of the sea and Diamond Head walls of the Natatorium to increase water circulation. The water from this pool will dump into the Kaimana Beach, in the near shore area where children play in the calm and gentle waters. This water will be of poorer quality than that now encountered here, and the flow also has the potential to change and move the sand covering that portion of the beach.

To soften the appearance of commercialization, plans call for children’s swimming lessons, and training lifeguards, police and fire departments in the pool. Is there something wrong with the public fresh-water pools in this town?

In these difficult economic times, there is not a lot of spare cash lying around. The question is this: Why should taxpayers pony up $11.5 million for a swimming pool that could be dangerous, when we’ll be charged again to use it, and the city gets none of the investment back? The conundrum is this: Any programs that draw people here to provide revenues will have a negative impact on other beachgoers and park users.

The City Council approved $11.5 million for the restoration of the pool and the structure, with the provision that the Friends of the Natatorium raise additional construction costs from the private sector. If the project is half-completed and in need of another cash infusion, and the Friends fail to raise the money in the private sector, it’s still possible that boosters could return to the city for more money. The City Council would be over a barrel to grant the request.

Liability and insurance are going to be huge hurdles to overcome. There is no way that water quality or clarity can be guaranteed. Insurance underwriters are going to look at this pool and see that it is an accident waiting to happen. Who will be the deep pocket for the swimming pool: the Friends, the city, the state, or all of them?

Upon completion of the restoration, plans call for the Friends to assume responsibility for the Natatorium operation and to handle some of the light maintenance. The Friends will keep all revenue from such operations as a gift shop, snack shop and museum, and activities such as weddings, private parties and evening shows. Current plans call for an admission charge for pool users.

The expense of compensating administrators of the Friends should also be considered. According to its articles of incorporation, the Friends of the Natatorium is set up as a taxexempt, 501(c)3, non-profit corporation. According to the organization’s by-laws, directors can be paid “reasonable fees for special services rendered.” A few fair questions come to mind: Will this be another political plum for members of the Old Boys Club? A golden parachute for retiring politicians?

Another development that concerns us greatly: Mayor Harris stated that he would like to see sunset shows at the pool, which will seat 2,500 people. Now here is where the future of the Natatorium could take another turn that could make quite a difference to the citizens of Honolulu.

What could be more perfect for a visitor than to watch a Hawaiian show at sunset, sipping cocktails at the ocean’s edge? Evening shows, aimed at the tourist market, would be a huge money maker for the Friends. How much would they charge for that?

There are a number of sincere directors of the Friends who claim they know nothing of Mayor Harris’s support for entertainment events at the Natatorium. It seems that there is poor communication between the city and the Friends.

With the restoration of the Natatorium come plans for bringing as many tourists to the area as possible. This will cause more parking and traffic problems and these problems loom large for local patrons of the area.

As park and beach users know, parking in this section of Kapi’olani Park is already at a premium. The EIS for the restoration project states that according to the City and County Department Of Land Utilization, there should be 244 parking places for the restored Natatorium. It goes on to say that there are only 39 parking spaces available – and some of those will be taken by restoration.

“The existing parking stalls cannot accommodate the parking requirements for the Natatorium,” the EIS concludes. It’s expected that the city will waive the parking requirements for the project. Where, then, is the public going to park?

Kaimana Beach is adjacent to the Natatorium. For many residents of the area, this beach and park area serves as a back yard. People swim, exercise, sunbathe, play with their children, picnic, socialize and commune with the fabulous sunsets. The best channel for ocean swimming is located here, and gentle near-shore waters allow safe swimming for keikis. How many kids have learned to swim here? How many birthday parties have taken place? Currently this area is used by locals and visitors alike. A harmonious balance exists in the relaxed beach/park scene.

According to the Friends’ business plan, once the Natatorium is restored, it will be advertised and promoted by the tourist industry. Thousands of people will walk, drive, and be bused to the area daily. The ambiance of this special place will be lost forever.

What is the solution for this precious piece of real estate? How can we honor the Veterans who gave their lives and still serve the needs of the living who use this vital area?

Restoring the Memorial Arch to honor the dead is imperative. Relatively inexpensive plans exist to make this a larger beach with access for the disabled. The plans include leaving the ewa and Diamond Head walls of the existing structure as groins to protect the sand on Kaimana Beach. There would be bathrooms and shower facilities.

The people of Honolulu deserve a special place, free of commercialization and hype. An oasis of peace and tranquility now exists at Kaimana Beach. Do we really want to jeopardize this special place for yet another tourist destination?

Mayor Harris has the power to stop this project by holding back the funds. The Friends of the Natatorium can choose not to go along with extravagant development plans. You too have a choice: Please voice your concerns.