Waikiki natatorium’s future remains uncertain

Honolulu Advertiser
By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Capitol Bureau

Almost a year after former Gov. Ben Cayetano approved new rules for public saltwater pools, the administration of Mayor Jeremy Harris has yet to come up with plans for the future of the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium.

Kent Brown of Kaimuki pauses in front of the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium after a surfing session. The facade of the natatorium has been renovated, but its saltwater pool requires changes to meet new state regulations.
Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

But Harris says he is committed to full restoration of the pool, built in 1927 in honor of those who fought and died in World War I and shut down in 1979 by the Department of Health.

Meanwhile, the group Friends of the Natatorium says it is seeking additional money for the project to complement the $6.9 million that the city has available for its completion.

The Harris administration is not saying how much more money is needed, but the friends group estimates that it could be as high as $5 million.

The restoration of the famed Waikiki oceanside fixture has been a topic of controversy for years.

Opponents say restoration of the pool is not worth its high price tag and that the pool could still be unsafe for the public. But Harris and other supporters say that the natatorium is a historical landmark and memorial that the city is obligated to restore.

The City Council earmarked $11 million for full restoration of the deteriorating memorial in 1998 and has spent more than $4 million on the project.

The Kaimana Beach Coalition sued the city, and a judge determined in 1999 that the natatorium is a saltwater pool requiring regulation by the Health Department.

Harris went forward with the restoration of the facade of the structure, as well as its bleachers and restrooms — improvements that were completed in time for Memorial Day 2000. He halted construction on the pool after the court judgment.

Visitors to the natatorium today would be able to use the restroom, but could not enter to see the pool or bleachers.

The new regulations signed by Cayetano last July require the city, or anyone else operating a saltwater pool, to install a mechanical pump system to increase circulation, as well as line the sides and bottom of the pool with a hard, easy-cleaning surface.

Harris, in a written statement this week, reiterated his commitment to full restoration.

“I still think it ought to be repaired and opened to the public,” the mayor said. “We have an obligation to veterans and the community not to leave it fallen down and unusable.”

But he would not consent to an interview to answer whether city engineers were reviewing the saltwater pool rules or whether the city had come up with an estimate of compliance costs.

The locked but not quite closed front gates of the natatorium frame a view into the beachside memorial.
Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

City spokeswoman Carol Costa said there are no immediate plans to proceed with pool restoration.

Costa said that about $6.9 million remains in the project’s budget after completion of the first phase.

“It’s not enough,” she said, to finish the pool side, although she could not say how much more is needed.

Donna L. Ching, spokeswoman for the Friends of the Natatorium, said that the group also does not have firm estimates of how much more the city will need but believes it is “somewhere over $1 million and under $5 million.”

Delays caused by the Kaimana lawsuit and the subsequent two-year rule-making process have “cost us demobilizing the construction, remobilizing the construction site, a little bit of materials and inflation,” she said. “And plus, the new regulations require mechanical pumps.”

Ching said that the group is “leading the initiative” to find grant money from nonprofit groups and federal agencies to finish the project. She declined to name those being approached.

The group does not expect the city to come up with the additional money on its own because Harris has stated that no more can come from city coffers.

“The mayor has been very supportive of the project and the Friends appreciate the mayor’s effort to this point,” Ching said. “We are not going to try to make him go back on his original statement, so we are taking the lead to raise the additional funds.”

The plan calls for expanding the pool’s intake and outtake openings from their existing 25 square feet to 763 square feet for the intake opening and 641 square feet for the outtake opening, she said. That will allow the water to turnover between three to 20 times a day, a dramatic increase from the every-third-day rate under the 1927 design, she said.

Jim Bickerton, attorney for the Kaimana Beach Coalition, said his organization wants assurances that the pool will adhere to the health regulations and that neighboring Kaimana Beach will not be diminished or destabilized by whatever the city eventually does.

“The third concern is that whatever development takes place there can’t be dedicated to commercial interests or frequent large events that will take away parking and access (from) people who just want to use the shoreline,” he said.

Bickerton, noting that the city has not released estimates for a pump system a year after the rules were set, said he is skeptical about whether the city even intends to abide by the new rules or will instead seek a waiver.

The coalition’s preference is for the city to abandon its plans for an enclosed pool and to instead tear down the makai wall, Bickerton said. That would ensure that two, healthy sand beaches exist both at Kaimana and at the site of the existing pool.

Bickerton said that besides obtaining a saltwater pool permit from the state, he believes the city will need to get a new special management area use permit from the City Council to make improvements to the pool.

Installing a hard surface and a pump circulation system are additions that would substantially alter the original project plans that were approved, he said.

The administration has stated that it does not believe additional approvals are needed unless it seeks additional money.

Previous councils have, by split votes, given money and zoning approvals for the natatorium.

It’s unclear, however, how the council that took office in December views restoration.

Reach Gordon Y.K. Pang at gpang@honoluluadvertiser.com or at 525-8070.