The Next Natatorium

Honolulu Star-Advertiser
By Lee Catterall

Abercrombie’s idea to turn the Waikiki landmark into a beach volleyball venue has rekindled the long debate over the crumbling property

As Gov. Neil Abercrombie develops his idea to turn the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium into a beach volleyball court, supporters and opponents once again have lined up for battle.


The facade and arches of the Natatorium mask the crumbling saltwater pool behind it. The transfer of the property to full state control, along with a proposal to restore the bleachers and build a beach volleyball court over the pool structure, has renewed debate over the Natatorium’s future.

While saving the pool is the best alternative, turning the structure into a volleyball facility with bleachers remains a “sensible course of action, financially, environmentally, historically and every way else,” said Donna L. Ching, vice president of Friends of the Natatorium.

Demolishing the Natatorium, moving its iconic arches inland and returning the site to its natural state would create “a last little peaceful oasis and outlet for people who live in a very crowded environment,” said James Bickerton, attorney for the Kaimana Beach Coalition.

While their solutions are radically different, everyone involved in this debate seems to agree that leaving the crumbling facility to slowly rot — in other words, the status quo — is not an option. There also is broad agreement that elements of the memorial should be preserved in some form. Other than that, the debate over the Waikiki landmark’s future has been bitterly divisive.

The memorial was built in 1927 to honor the veterans of World War I and is included in the National Register of Historic Places. The pool where Duke Kahanamoku swam was closed in 1979 after being deemed a health and safety hazard. In 1998, then-Mayor Jeremy Harris authorized $11.5 million for complete restoration, but the next mayor, Mufi Hannemann, canceled the plan and assigned a task force in 2009 to assess the issue. The task force recommended that the memorial’s arches be reconstructed and moved inland and that the pool and bleachers razed to create additional beach space.

Since then, not much has happened. The state owns the Natatorium, but the property has been operated by the city under executive order. Abercrombie and Mayor Peter Carlisle have agreed to return control of the Natatorium to the state, and Abercrombie intends to put the site to better use than its current state of virtual abandonment.

In one of numerous e-mails involving Abercrombie aides obtained by Bickerton, Michael Ng, a policy adviser for the Abercrombie administration, wrote in August that the governor “wants to keep the main structure intact and create a world-class venue for beach volleyball. We probably can’t keep the pool — we’d need to do something like build the volleyball court on piles IN the pool.”

To restore the structure to some measure of its former glory will cost money; how much is anyone’s guess. The task force estimated that rebuilding the pool would cost $60 million. Rebuilding the structure in any way would be expensive, Bickerton said. He suggested that a $100 million estimate “doesn’t seem out of line.”

Besides the cost, there’s the question of the impact of various alternatives to this slice of Waikiki.

With “large capital costs and heavy ongoing maintenance,” Bickerton said, state officials can be expected not to allow the natatorium to be idle, deciding, “We should do something with it. We should have shows there.”

“Well,” he added, “when you have shows there, where do I park when I want to just go with my kids for a swim lesson, or launch my one-man canoe, or just sit and watch the sunset, which people can do right now? What happens to all that?”

Kapiolani Park is like New York City’s Central Park, Bickerton said. “It’s a public resource and it’s for the public by the public, and there’s no commercial activity in the park.”

Ching said Bickerton’s concern is “a red herring.” She noted that 300,000 people a year visit the nearby Waikiki Aquarium, most of them walking because there is no parking on that property. Other events occur at Kapiolani Park, which “is the center of lots of events that happen that are very large-scale and attract a lot of people to the park.”

Bickerton maintains that replacing the Natatorium with a volleyball court would reduce precious shoreline access in an area where little exists. “I can build a sand arena anywhere for volleyball,” he said, “but there’s only so many places where I can get to the ocean to swim, because it’s sandy, because it’s calm, or it’s because it’s near my house or where people live.”

However, Ching said restoring the Natatorium site to its original condition would not bring back sand. Photographs show rocks in that spot, because “that’s the natural state of the shoreline in that area. If you look at pictures that were taken before the Natatorium was built, there was no sand there.”

“There’s not really a restoration of the beach to be done,” Ching said. “You’d be building an artificial beach along the shoreline there. You’d have to reconstruct something.”

Bickerton said he expects the Abercrombie administration will use the new Public Land Development Corp., which is exempt from many land use and zoning rules, to achieve its ends, and idea that Abercrombie himself has recommended.

“This is a whole coterie of people, and it’s some of the same people who are behind the PLDC, and this is actually one of the reasons the PLDC was brought in, because this is the most expensive piece of real estate that the state owns,” Bickerton said. “It’s the most valuable, and it’s been coveted by commercial interests for years, and this is their chance to get it with minimal environmental and regulatory oversight.”

E-mail communication on the issue with the governor’s office has included the Peter Apo Co., a corporate consulting firm; and Leo A Daly, an architectural company where Ching is director of business development. However, Ching said she has not been motivated by the association. She said she took the position with Friends of the Natatorium in 1994, a decade before beginning work at Daly.

“Restoring the pool and letting people swim in it would be a touchdown,” Ching said. But she recognizes that may be too difficult: “We’re on our own 20-yard line, and just need first down at this point,” she said. For Friends of the Natatorium, that means supporting the governor’s plan.

“We just want to move the chains down the field. … whether it’s going to be a pass play or a run, whether it’s going to be a pool or volleyball or something else, then you huddle up with your people and you decide we’re going to give the ball to this guy or we’re going to throw it this way and this is what we’re going to do.”