Natatorium repair plan faces fight

Honolulu Advertiser
By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Capitol Bureau

Most City Council members object to Mayor Jeremy Harris’ $6 million plan to make emergency repairs at the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium, but whether they have the authority to halt the action remains to be seen.

Mayor Jeremy Harris wants to spend $6 million to fix the natatorium; many City Council members prefer that the administration tear down the pool portion, leaving just the facade that fronts Kalakaua Avenue.
Advertiser library photo

Meanwhile, an attorney for the Kaimana Beach Coalition that has opposed restoration of the structure said he will take the city to court if the council does not stop the mayor.

The Harris administration this week said the structure, built in 1927 to honor World War I veterans from Hawai’i, is so badly deteriorated that emergency repairs are required to shore up the natatorium pool and deck structure. Ignoring the problem, according to two separate engineering reports commissioned by the city, could lead to the collapse of the entire complex.

Six of the nine council members told The Advertiser this week they would prefer the administration tear down the pool portion, leaving simply the famous facade that fronts Kalakaua Avenue.

Budget Chairwoman Ann Kobayashi said she’s prepared to introduce a resolution to that effect. She said that the project proposed by the administration only repairs the walls of the pool and would not include installation of a filter system required by the Health Department.

“We’ll probably have to spend millions more to fix the pool and make it usable,” she said.

Councilwoman Barbara Marshall said she’s worried about the potential liability of leaving the pool in a substandard condition. “Even if you try to fence off the pool itself, kids are going to climb over the fence,” she said.

Council members Charles Djou, Nestor Garcia, Gary Okino and Rod Tam also said they would rather see the pool torn down, leaving the facade as is. Some said they are skeptical that the repairs would be the end-all for work on the natatorium.

Harris, however, said the council has no say in the matter because he wants to use money that was set aside for natatorium improvements in 1998. “We are not legally bound if they pass that resolution because the money has already been appropriated for restoration of the natatorium,” the mayor said.

Tim Steinberger, director of design and construction for the city, said that even if the administration were to agree to the council wishes, it would need to petition those in charge of the state and national historic registries before the pool can be demolished. Such a process could take years, he said, while the pool continues to deteriorate.

Steinberger said even if such approvals were received, it would cost at least $6 million not just to tear down the pool but to build two new underwater walls — one running parallel to the shoreline to protect the facade from waves, the other to ensure that the nearby Kaimana Beach does not disappear as a result of prevailing current action.

Council members, some of whom are skeptical of Steinberger’s estimate for the cost to tear down the pool, believe that would at least save the city from ongoing maintenance and repair costs down the line.

Because of its place in the historic registries, Harris said he does not believe the city would be given the option to tear down the pool so long as it can be salvaged. Harris said the city could not honestly argue that health and safety considerations require that the pool be torn down.

“You’d have to argue that there is no alternative to tearing down the pool when the historic preservation agencies know very well that there is an alternative to tearing down the pool and that’s fixing the pool,” he said.

Jim Bickerton, attorney for the Kaimana Beach Coalition, believes the council can and should stop Harris from making the repairs. A shoreline management area use permit issued by the council for the natatorium was for restoration of the structure, not repairs, he said. The council could pass a resolution revoking the permit, he said.

Bickerton said if the council doesn’t stop Harris, he will go to court to block the project. “They can’t use the same SMA permits; it’s now a different project,” he said, adding that there are grounds to block it.

Councilman Mike Gabbard said he is inclined to support full restoration of the natatorium, adding that he endorses Harris’ repair plan. Council Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz said he has not committed to a decision but wants to balance public safety with respect for the veterans. Councilman Romy Cachola could not be reached for comment.

Reach Gordon Y.K. Pang at or at 525-8070.