Natatorium planning kept under wraps

By Michael Tsai

Emails reveal talks between the state and private interests over the site’s fate

The Hickam Honor Guard retires the colors, walking past the front of the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium during the 24th annual Memorial Day commemoration on the lawn fronting the Natatorium earlier this year.

Recently released email correspondence between the state and city officials, executives from a local architectural firm, and leaders from commercial and private interest groups has shed light on what one local attorney characterizes as backroom dealings to determine the fate of the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium.

James Bickerton, attorney for the Kaimana Beach Coalition, requested the correspondence under the Freedom of Information Act last month amid rumors that Gov. Neil Abercrombie and his staff had been meeting secretly with representatives from the city, the Waikiki Improvement Association, the Friends of the Natatorium and others regarded as significant stakeholders in advance of the state reclaiming control of the memorial and repurposing it as a venue for volleyball tournaments, concerts and other public events.

Abercrombie has publically stated that he intends to put an end to decades-long debate over what to do with the dilapidated memorial, which was originally constructed in 1927 to honor military personnel from Hawaii who served in World War I. The natatorium has been closed since 1979 because of safety concerns.

The natatorium is owned by the state but controlled by the city under an executive order by former Gov. George Ariyoshi. In 2009, a task force charged with coming up with a final answer to the ongoing political debate surrounding the natatorium voted 9-3 in favor of demolishing the facility while retaining its famous archway as a permanent memorial. Then-Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann accepted the recommendation, but further action has been slowed by ongoing planning, financing and assessment issues.

Abercrombie and current Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle have already discussed a plan that would involve a new executive order returning control of the site to the state. However, Abercrombie has yet to issue the order.

Bickerton said the Kaimana Beach Coalition supports the previously adopted plan to move the archway inland and establish the newly cleared area as a public beach park. He said his group has been excluded from the governor’s recent planning meetings.

“We’ve learned from past experience that hidden behind these projects where large sums of money are involved are usually private interests,” said Bickerton, who has been involved in the natatorium debate since 1998. “We wanted to find out who the governor has been meeting with.”

Bickerton’s FOIA request yielded scores of emails dating back to March that indicate a renewed drive to address the natatorium issue.

An Aug. 8 email from Wendy Clerinx, Abercrombie’s policy director, to state Department of Land and Natural Resources Director William Aila Jr. and other DLNR officials — and copied to Abercrombie policy analyst Michael Ng — acknowledged the earlier task force recommendation but stated:

“The Governor is not interested in revisiting the options of doing nothing, fully restoring the structure, and restoring the original shoreline. He would like to restore the area to be used as some kind of venue/recreational area such as for beach volleyball or concerts.”

The emails also indicate that the governor’s office had been in regular contact with Waikiki business leaders regarding the project.

An Aug. 9 email from Jim Boersema, Abercrombie’s communication director, to Chief of Staff Bruce Coppa and Deputy Chief of Staff Blake Oshiro references an upcoming draft of an executive order returning control of the natatorium to the state. In it, Boersema notes that he will “pass on to the Waikiki Improvement Assoc. and Hawaii Hotel Assoc. guys that the document is being developed and will be implemented with the City around year’s end …”

A reply from Oshiro instructs Boersema to “not be so definitive” regarding Abercrombie’s plans.

“We will probably want to meet with the Friends of the Natatorium soon, after the primary, to confirm that nothing has changed,”  Oshiro wrote. “We then need to do more evaluation and due diligence on the issue, before we would be ready to publically announce that we are preparing an executive order to take it back.”

The emails also revealed a concerted effort by those who support the development of the property as a stadium attraction to control both the flow of information to the public and the way in which such information would be presented.

In an April 16 email to Ng, Friends of the Natatorium Vice President Donna Ching expressed concern over an upcoming column by the Star-Advertiser’s Richard Borreca regarding the governor’s plans for the natatorium. Ching told Ng that she and Waikiki Improvement Association President Rick Egged, both of whom were contacted for the column, did not give Borreca “anything he can use,” but later stated:

“Disclosure of the Governor’s plan in the press before he is ready to announce it himself, and before preservation advocates are armed with the messages they need to support him, would leave the Governor vulnerable to Rick Bernstein trying — incorrectly — to paint him as anti-environment and dismissive of the public sentiment reflected in the report of the City’s (sham) task force. If the plan moves forward quickly enough for the Governor to announce it on his own terms, and with coordinated support, it will be to his political benefit.”

Bernstein is the founder of the Kaimana Beach Coalition.

Ching also serves as director of business development for the Leo A Daly architectural firm, which has been involved in previous natatorium studies, assessments and planning.

Bickerton expressed dismay at the apparent influence of the Waikiki Improvement Association, Leo A Daly and other “commercial interests” in deciding the natatorium site’s future use.

“The hotels control the west end of Waikiki, and the luxury condos and beach clubs control the far-east side,” Bickerton said by telephone. “All that’s left for local people is that little stretch in between. We need to think about how the governor’s plan is going to impact parking in the area and beach access along the most valuable stretch of beach in the state.”