Natatorium faces another study

Honolulu Advertiser
By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Staff Writer

Next month, the city expects to hire a planning consultant to consider the future of the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium. Again.

Crumbling concrete and other hazardous conditions have kept the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium closed to swimmers since 1979. A new study has been ordered to possibly once and for all settle the future of the once-grand waterfront memorial.
Photos by GREGORY YAMAMOTO | The Honolulu Advertiser

The waterfront memorial to veterans of World War I awaits the next chapter in its 79-year history. The crumbling ocean-water pool remains mired in controversy with supporters still pushing for full restoration of the once-grand swimming pool and opponents arguing for more beach space.

The facility has been closed to swimming since June 1979. The last formal work on the structure ended in 2000 after then-Mayor Jeremy Harris oversaw the completion of a facelift and renovation of the arches and bleachers.

The new study will mark the first city action since emergency repairs in 2004 after a section of the broad concrete pool deck collapsed.

Eugene Lee, deputy director of the city Department of Design and Construction, said Mayor Mufi Hannemann requested and got a total of $500,000 for planning and design in the current budget. A portion of that money will be used to analyze alternate uses for the memorial that all stop short of full restoration.

Lee said the possible uses — including keeping the arches and bleachers — also “will run the gamut from essentially beach restoration or relocation of some of the structures to total elimination of the structures.”

He said the city expects to award a contract to a planning consultant by next month to complete an analysis over the next two years. Lee said the city will not pursue full restoration because of safety worries, cost concerns and the state Health Department’s published saltwater pool regulations, which “would be very, very hard to meet.”

He said the city monitors the crumbling structure and posted signs and erected barriers to keep people out.

In the fiscal year that’s about to begin, Hannemann asked for $40,000 in planning and design and $5.3 million in construction, but Lee said the council cut construction money in half.

City Customer Services Director Jeff Coelho said the Hannemann administration is trying to keep the structure safe while analyzing the best solution. Coelho said that means shoring up the shoreline and trying to stabilize the structure.

“We can’t let it deteriorate to the point where it becomes a public hazard,” he said.

Mo Palepale of Kalihi and Vehi Sevelo of Kane’ohe, both 20, say they like to go to the beach near the memorial. The Natatorium has been closed their whole life.

“Ever since we were little, it’s been locked up,” Palepale said.

Sevelo favors restoration: “They should fix it for the locals; they should make use of the areas.” But they both know that financing the project is a problem.

Lee’s department assured City Council members that the construction money would only be used to fix the memorial if other portions of it fell apart.

Lee said the city also hopes to engage the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in a separate contract to study the impact on the coastline of different solutions. That study is estimated to cost about $300,000.

Supporters and opponents of full restoration agree that the Natatorium’s historical facade should be part of any future plans.

The fate of the memorial has been debated for decades. By May 2000, the Friends of the Natatorium group celebrated a big change: the restoration of the historical facade. That cost $4.4 million of the $11.5 million that the City Council had approved to spend on the monument.

But the project bogged down in controversy with concerns about the health and safety of trying to restore the ocean-water pool and questions about how much it would cost to repair, then operate and maintain it. The rest of the money was never spent on the memorial.

Council members backed away from other phases of restoration, and Harris, an advocate for restoration, left office. In a speech in February 2005, Hannemann said, “We’ve suspended work on the Waikiki Natatorium to save us from having to pour more good money after bad.”

Architect Ed Pskowski of the firm Leo A. Daly first started working on the project in 1988 and became a big proponent of full restoration. He remembers swimming in the Natatorium in the 1970s and still hopes for a day when his kids and grandkids could swim there, too.

He fondly recalls the Memorial Day service last month when Hannemann gave permission for the Royal Hawaiian Band to perform, and about 200 people gathered to honor the war dead and enjoy the memorial.

Pskowski said any projects will be complicated by the status of the monument on the national and state historic registers. While some people favor moving the arches, Pskowski said those options range from expensive to impossible.

“The arches are basically stucco over small concrete blocks that are on a foundation,” Pskowski said.”You just can’t separate anything without it crumbling.”

And he suggests that those who ask for beach restoration look to turn-of-the-century photos that show scoured rock rather than beach near where the Natatorium now exists. “The only reason the beach is there is because of the Natatorium,” he said.

The president of the Friends of the Natatorium is Linuce Pang, a 72-year-old Korean War Navy veteran who has been supporting restoration for 20 years.

Pang maintains that the memorial should be preserved as a monument to those people from Hawai’i who died: “These 101 men and women gave their lives to go clear over to Europe, all the way from Hawai’i. This was to honor them.”

Pang sees that political support for full restoration has ebbed and he’s tired of the politics. “We certainly don’t need any more studies,” he said. “What more do they need to know?”

Attorney Jim Bickerton represents the other viewpoint — the Kaimana Beach Coalition — made up of those who believe the pool should be filled in and the area used as a beach park for the many residents who swim and play there.

“We certainly support Mayor Hannemann’s approach of really studying ways to use the area that will benefit everyone but still pay respect to the veterans,” Bickerton said.

But the coalition opposes restoration of the ocean-water recirculating pool, any use that will increase commercialization of the area, and the idea of a freshwater pool as well. “It would be expensive and pointless to have a traditional chlorinated pool there,” he said.

Bickerton would like to see the expanded beach envisioned by the coalition, as a way to preserve and enhance one of the few ocean recreation areas in town favored by residents over tourists.

“We’re fighting to hold on to that and keep it that way,” Bickerton said. “This is one of the few public beaches in the urban area that’s not blocked off by hotels and has parking.”

Nancy Bannick, vice president of the friends group, said anything but full restoration will result in the memorial’s demise.

“There’s no second choice for the friends,” Bannick said. “We’d just have to stand back and watch it be demolished and say ‘shame, shame.’ ”

City Councilman Charles Djou, who represents Waikiki, sees wisdom on both sides. “I think in an ideal world the Natatorium should be restored. I think it’s a fitting tribute to our veterans,” Djou said.

But he also believes Hannemann needs to focus on core city services such as sewers, roads and public safety without spending money on other things.

“In the near term, they’re doing the right thing,” Djou said.

Reach Robbie Dingeman at rdingeman@honoluluadvertiser.com.