The Truth About Historic Preservation: Adaptive Re-use of the Natatorium

By James J. Bickerton, Esq. and Douglas A. Codiga, Esq.

Contrary to the Harris administration’s assertions, historic preservation laws would not prevent the creation of a memorial beach along the lines proposed by the Kaimana Beach Coalition. Although the Natatorium is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and Hawaii Register of Historic Places, these designations are not the end of the story.

First, it is important to remember that not every registered historic place is preserved forever. In fact, the Harris administration recently demolished 15 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Properties as part of the Ewa Villages Redevelopment project because the buildings were no longer viable due to economic and health and safety concerns.

Further examples include Tustin, California, where two World War II blimp hangars listed on the National Register were to be demolished despite being among the largest wooden buildings in the world – because the community wanted to develop a regional park. And in Minnesota, demolition of an historic bridge, also listed on the National Register, was planned because traffic had increased and a new bridge was required.

“Adaptive re-use” occurs when, as with the Honolulu’s Natatorium, a community wishes to preserve, rather than demolish, the essential historic features and beauty of the place, but must modify the structure to meet current economic realities or health and safety standards.

Despite the Mayor’s assertions, the administration’s current plans are actually an example of “adaptive re-use” because they propose a modified Natatorium with different features than the original. The Harris plan eliminates a tall diving tower and two large reflecting pools, both of which were prominent features of the original site. Due to Department of Health rules, the Harris plan must include a pool with a hard bottom and cleanable sides (rather than the original sandy bottom). The pool must use large motorized pumps to flush water through the pool (rather than rely on the original passive tidal flushing). These changes add up to “adaptive re-use.”

The Kaimana Beach Coalition’s proposal to create a memorial beach by modifying some of the walls of the pool is simply another type of “adaptive re-use.” It is far superior, however, because it will save the community millions of dollars in construction and upkeep, eliminate threats to public health and safety, reduce commercialization, and bring final resolution to the Natatorium issue.

In short, the Kaimana Beach Coalition believes that a memorial beach would be entirely consistent with the letter and spirit of federal and state historic preservation laws, which allow for the “adaptive re-use” of historic properties to accommodate public health and safety concerns, local economic realities, and evolving community needs and values.