Pull the plug

By Rick Bernstein
Published in the Honolulu Weekly, September 29, 2004

The Kaimana Beach Coalition wants the Natatorium demolished once and for all.

It appears that Mayor Jeremy Harris is hell bent on sinking more money into the decrepit Natatorium whether the public or the Honolulu City Council likes it or not. Despite City Council resolutions urging our lame duck mayor to halt the $6.1 million Natatorium “patch up” of seawalls and pool decks, he has issued a “Notice to Proceed” with construction. The Sept. 15 notice sends a clear and defiant message to City Council that Harris intends to spend the encumbered funds regardless of council desires.

Pool saga

August 24, 1927: The War Memorial Natatorium and swimming arena is officially opened. It is built in 150 days at a cost of $252,000.

1949: The Legislature sets aside $70,000 for major repair work and turns over management of the pool to the city.

1963: The Natatorium gradually falls into disrepair again and the pool is shut when its outlets to the sea become clogged by seaweed.

1965: A number of city officials want the pool to be demolished instead of spending more than $250,000 to fix it.

1979: The Department of Parks and Recreation closes the Natatorium permanently, citing safety issues.

1998: The City Council votes in favor of repairing the Natatorium at a cost of $11.5 million. Repair work is scheduled to begin in March and is expected to take 16 months.

1999: A Circuit Court judge allows the city to continue with part of the restoration. The saltwater pool cannot be included in the work until the city abides by state rules for saltwater swimming pools, a requirement that stalls the remainder of the $11 million restoration.

2000: $4.6 million of the $11.5 million is spent restoring the facade, bleachers and restrooms. The pool is not repaired.

May 2004: The city closes the restrooms after a section on the pool deck collapses, leaving a crater at the edge of the bleachers on the mauka wall.

August 2004: Mayor Harris proposes spending $6.1 million to once again restore the Natatorium. City Council members discuss tearing down the Natatorium instead of spending the money to fix it. Harris says the council has no say in the mattre because the money had already been set aside for the restoration project in 1998.

September 2004: The City Council passes two resolutions that could halt or scale back the $6.1 million repair project. Mayor Harris says that he intends to go ahead with the repairs in spite of the resolutions.

The council resolutions specifically queried the mayor about his plans for the swimming pool design, its price tag and if it will comply with mandatory Department of Health specifications. It’s only reasonable that the citizens of Honolulu receive answers to these questions before construction begins.

The resolutions also propose some inexpensive solutions that address safety issues such as keeping people out of the Natatorium-build a better fence around the structure and hire a security guard to keep out trespassers who might be injured. In 25 years of the Natatorium being locked up and off limits to visitors, no one has ever been hurt.

Mayor Harris did not provide answers to the council’s questions nor respond to their common sense solutions. Instead he stonewalled the council, giving them no information, and proceeded to sign a contract with contractor Healey Tibbitts Builders to begin work immediately.

Big plans, dubious logic

Mayor Harris will embark upon a major construction project that will leave the future occupant of City Hall with a dubious investment of precious monetary and waterfront resources. Plans include repairing seawalls surrounding the Natatorium and driving two rows of concrete piles around the pool on which to hang new concrete decks. The ten-month project will, in a band-aid style, pour new concrete over old in an attempt to preserve the crumbling seawall portion of this decaying experiment in 1920s ocean engineering.

Unfortunately, it will also leave the future mayor with limited options on what to do with this valuable piece of oceanfront real estate. When work is completed, the pool, bleachers and bathrooms will have to be once again locked and closed to the public, because the renovation plans do not include repairing the cracked beams that support the bathrooms.

In this era of limited budgets, building a 100-meter swimming pool in the ocean is an expensive and extravagant proposition.

Not only has there been no money allocated for the pool but the original SMA (special management area) permit granted for the project is invalid due to court-ordered design changes (necessitated by Department of Health rules and regulations).

The Kaimana Beach Coalition has a court-ordered injunction prohibiting the city from doing any work on the ocean-based portion of the Natatorium. In spite of this, Mayor Harris pushes forward as if to defy the laws of physics and common sense. Every facet of the last $4.4 million rehabilitation of the bleachers, bathrooms and memorial arch has been flawed and logic dictates that the same fate will befall the next incarnation of Mayor Harris’ folly.

Intelligent planning would call for plans, permits and costs to be in place for an entire project before any work is done. Unfortunately, that is not the case and the mayor will be long out of office when the Natatorium begins to crumble once again. Taxpayers will bear the fiscal responsibility of the mayor’s recklessness.

It begs the question, “Why is Mayor Harris doing this?” One can look at the evidence and make an educated guess that the Natatorium is prime for development by commercial interests. At the beginning of the Harris administration he spoke openly of commercializing the facility and turning it into a hula show venue. Talk of this abruptly stopped when public sentiment went against him but we believe the plan is still very much alive.

Whatever the motive, if this scheme continues, Honolulu taxpayers will be locked into an endless cycle of construction, repair and maintenance. Taxpayers should be outraged that the mayor is railroading this project on the citizens of Honolulu whether they like it or not.

Jeremy Harris continues to defy City Council requests for information about restoration costs and plans. He is also defying a court-ordered injunction regarding work on the ocean-based portion of the project.

The Kaimana Beach Coalition supports a one-time expenditure of $6-8 million to demolish the Natatorium and create a new beach. The plan includes new or restored arches, groins to protect beach sand, a sand volleyball court, new bathrooms, memorial areas for the Hawai’i soldiers of WWI and the Hawai’i swimmers of the 1920s and ’30s and a new lifeguard office. This plan opens a 500-yard near-shore swimming course that would run from Kaimana Beach through the Natatorium, and on to the Queen’s Surf groin. This would be one of the prime recreational areas in Honolulu. We have so much to gain with this inexpensive and low-maintenance plan. Several people who have viewed the new beach plan have said, “What a perfect keiki beach.” We agree.

You can view computer-generated images of the new beach on the home page of our website www.savekaimanabeach.org.

Join us for our Oct. 22 fundraiser featuring music by Makana. Visit the website for details.

Let Mayor Harris know what you think of his actions. Call him at 523-4141.

Rick Bernstein is a member of the Kaimana Beach Coalition.