By Sophie Cocke
Gov. Neil Abercrombie is considering taking the Waikiki Natatorium back from the city to pursue his own plans for the dilapidated memorial that jets out into the shallow waters of Oahu’s south shore.
Meanwhile, the city quit work months ago on plans recommended by a city task force, a decision that people involved with the project are just now hearing about.
That means about $750,000 in taxpayer-funded studies and an environmental impact statement, begun under former Mayor Mufi Hannemann, could be wasted.
Abercrombie’s office isn’t saying what the state might do with the property, which is posted with signs saying “Danger, Keep Out.”
“We are evaluating and discussing options, but have no firm decision yet about how the state will proceed,” said Jim Boersema, a spokesman for the governor. He said decision should be made later this year, in time for the legislative session.
But it appears there’s still no end to the half-century fight over what to do with the World War I tribute that’s become an eye sore in the biggest tourist area in the state.
In 2009, a 17-member task force recommended that the memorial that includes a long-unused salt-water swimming pool be torn down. The panel also said the iconic Beaux Arts arches should be moved back to the shoreline wall and the space be filled in with sand to make a beach park.
An EIS was started to evaluate that plan. But the city stopped work on the EIS in May, according to Lori Kahikina, director of the city’s Department of Design and Construction, and is awaiting word from the governor’s office on how to proceed.
“I just want a clear direction which way we are going, that is all I want,” said Kahikina. “It’s whichever direction we need to go. I have no strong feelings either way.”
That Mayor Peter Carlisle halted the EIS months ago took many people who have long been involved with the project by surprise this week.
The disruption in plans is angering the Kaimana Beach Coalition, a local community organization that has for years been involved in plans for the memorial.
“Killing the EIS is definitely a waste of public money and that is regrettable,” said James Bickerton, an attorney for the group. “But it’s also preventing us from getting valuable information about what this area can handle. And to me it’s very troubling if the state is about to launch some new venture there. We should have the environmental impact statement for the beach park so that we can understand the impact of whatever the state is planning. It gives us a good baseline.”
Civil Beat asked the mayor’s office for updates on the project in June, but received limited responses, and there was no mention that the EIS has been halted.
“The Mayor and Governor are in discussions about the future of the Natatorium,” Johnny Brannon, a spokesman for the city, wrote in a June email to Civil Beat. “That’s where things stand for now.”
On Wednesday, Carlisle told Civil Beat that the city has paid out $750,000 of a $1.3 million contract to Wil Chee Planning Inc. for the EIS and other studies.
He rejected criticism that halting the work was a waste of public resources.
“My impression is that we are a whole lot better off in studying whatever exactly is planned in the future instead of going ahead with an EIS that might not be relevant,” Carlisle said. “Why do it if you don’t know whether it is going to be relevant?”
Neither Boersema, the governor’s spokesman, nor city officials said what the plans are for the site.
But in May, Abercrombie said he was looking into converting the swimming pool into volleyball courts, Hawaii News Now reported.
This would preserve the structure, something that groups such as the Friends of the Natatorium have advocated.
But it’s sure to reignite the debate.
Bickerton said that the best use for the space, which is the most expensive piece of real estate that the state owns, is to turn it into a traditional public beach and keep out commercial interests. He said that a citizens committee made up of a broad cross-section of the community had studied all of the available options at length.
“To me, it’s really more about why is the state interfering with the very democratic process that the city went through to find a solution,” he said. “And how do we know that whatever plan the state has for this area is not going to involve commercial activity?”
Chip Fletcher, a geology and geophysics professor at the University of Hawaii, who was on the task force, said that a lot of work went into the deliberations.
“There was an awful lot of creative thinking and thought that went into it, so it was not a superficial effort,” he said. “There was a lot of work and a lot of discussion by quite a number of people.”
Still, Carlisle said that it made sense to reopen discussions.
“I’m saying if everybody got to have a discussion, everyone that is interested in this issue, all sides, and say let’s look at this in a different way and see if this might be valuable, there is no reason not to do that,” he said.