Waikiki natatorium task force votes today, but mayor to decide

Honolulu Advertiser
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

The 82-year-old Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium is crumbling and has been closed for years. The city is deciding whether to restore it or turn the site into a beach.
Advertiser library photo

A 17-member task force formed to help the city decide the future of the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium remains highly divided going into its final meeting today, in which members will vote on whether the 82-year-old landmark should stay or go.

The advisory group was put together by the city in May, in the hope that its members would be able to compromise and come to a consensus on what to do with the site.

But so far, that hasn’t happened.

Kiersten Faulkner, a task force member and executive director of the Historic Hawaii Foundation, said part of the difficulty has been the lack of “common ground.” She said the group really has only two options to consider — keep the natatorium standing or tear it down.

“Usually, there can be a balance struck between preservation … and new use,” Faulkner said, adding that the natatorium decision is “a rare preservation” issue where there’s little room for compromise. “You save it or you destroy,” she said. “There’s really no common ground.”

But Faulkner added that she came onto the task force with an open mind.

RESTORE OR RAZE

At the meeting today, she will be pushing to restore the natatorium, and argues that the preservation option could cost less in the end than razing the landmark and building a beach in its place. The Oahu Veterans Council and the Friends of the Natatorium, who have members on the task force, also will be recommending the landmark be stabilized and maintained.

On the other side of the argument are several task force members who argue that the natatorium is a public health risk and should be torn down to make way for a public beach.

Rick Bernstein, of the Kaimana Beach Coalition, said he supports taking down the natatorium memorial and putting in a “memorial beach” in its place, with bathrooms. “It would be a functional memorial, versus a dysfunctional memorial,” Bernstein said.

Task force members were not sure just how close the vote will be today, since not everyone in the group has expressed strong views either way. Both opponents and supporters of tearing down the natatorium believed that they have a good chance of winning out.

The task force has one city representative, Collins Lam, who could be the deciding vote.

Lam, deputy director of the city Department of Design and Construction, said a recommendation to the mayor based on the vote today will be completed in about a week or two. The mayor will then make the final call on what to do with the natatorium.

It’s unclear how long it will take for the city to kick off a project, Lam said.

The mayor has said he supports razing the memorial and building a beach in its place.

The fate of the war memorial natatorium, with its swimming pool, bleachers and arched facade, has been in limbo since 1979, when it was shut down because of safety concerns. Since then, the site has continued to deteriorate, creating a multimillion-dollar problem for the city.

Today, the natatorium’s deck has massive holes where concrete has corroded or fallen away. The city has also warned for years that the deck and perimeter walls are collapse hazards.

The landmark is on the national and state registers of historic places.

COSTLY OPTIONS

In presentations to the natatorium task force, a city consultant said it would cost $20 million to $30 million to refurbish the natatorium. By comparison, the price of doing nothing at the site beyond installing new safety measures was estimated at $2.5 million. Tearing down the natatorium and its bleachers could run from $1.2 million, to remove all structures, to $8 million to rebuild the archway at another site and install groins in the water to create a sandy beach.

Those estimates do not include costs for environmental assessments and permits.

Supporters of refurbishing the natatorium said those costs will mount quickly, however.

They argue that restoration might actually be cheaper and, they say, it’s a matter of principle.

“We’re talking about taking down, arguably, a national treasure in order to create 100 meters of new beach,” said Peter Apo, president of the Friends of the Natatorium. In a news release, the Friends said it recommends immediate stabilization of the natatorium along with the creation of a public-private partnership to “operate and maintain the restored natatorium.”