William Aila: Sleep Well! The Natatorium Will Soon Be Mine

Civil Beat
By Sophie Cocke

The Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium has been closed since 1979.

The Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium has been closed since 1979.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie decided to take the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium back from the city in July to build a volleyball arena. The challenge for top city officials was how to keep the media and public from finding out about it.

That’s according to internal emails between city and state officials shared with Civil Beat on Friday, which show city officials scrambling to handle repeated media requests throughout the summer about what was going on with the Natatorium.

A 17-member city task force recommended in 2009 that the decaying swimming pool that has been closed for three decades be torn down and the space filled in with sand to create a beach. Until recently, the city was moving ahead with $1.3 million in studies, including an environmental impact statement, on the proposal.

Jim Bickerton, an attorney for the Kaimana Beach Coalition, obtained the emails through a public records request.

The coalition was furious when it found out last month that the studies on the plan to tear down the Natatorium had been stopped. The group wants the area to be a traditional public beach, free of commercial interests.

The state owns the Natatorium, but the city has been in charge of managing it through an executive order.

The debate about what to do with the Natatorium has raged for half a century. The state and city have batted control of the memorial back and forth for years, amid competing agendas, as well as a reluctance on the part of government officials to be stuck with the bill. It will costs millions of dollars to deal with the dilapidated structure. Meanwhile, the pool, which has become an eyesore in Waikiki and is lined with “Danger, Keep Out Signs” remains a public health hazard.

While Abercrombie’s office told Civil Beat in August that the governor was still deciding on whether to take the Natatorium back, emails between the head of the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources and the city’s director of design and construction, indicate a decision was finalized in mid-July.

The reaction of the city director? Pure elation.

Lori Kahikina, director of the city’s Department of Design and Construction, sent an email to DLNR Chair William Aila in early July asking for confirmation on the governor’s intention to rescind the executive order and take back the Natatorium to create a volleyball facility.

Aila responds:

I will check with the Governor for his take and get back to you. Don’t smile until I hear it from his lips!

On July 12, Kahikina sent another email to Aila expressing her hope that the state was indeed going to take the Natatorium back. She writes:

I’m still holding my breath and crossing my fingers and toes. HA! Were you able to get clarification from the Governor? Is the hot potato in your lap or mine?

(Kahikina struck a different tone when Civil Beat interviewed her about the Natatorium just last month, saying she had “no strong feelings either way” as to whether the project remained with the city or was transferred to the state.)

Aila, in good humor, wrote Kahikina back on July 15, reassuring her that the problem would soon be his:

The hot potato is my court. I am will be attending meetings on Hawaii Island next week, I will schedule meeting with you first/second week in August. Sleep well! The Natatorium will soon be mine after we figure out a transition plan.

Kahikina didn’t hold back her excitement:

NO WAY!!!! You totally made my day, month, year!!! Hehe Seriously, we will work together to make sure everything transitions smoothly.

She then forwarded the email exchange to Mayor Peter Carlisle, thanking him for his help in the matter:

Mayor Peter Carlisle . . . . YOU ARE DA MAN!!!!! Thank you for all your help on this one. Our staff will begin to gather all of our files and will ensure the transition is smooth and seamless.

Spin Campaign

Abercrombie has made no secret in the past of his interest in a volleyball arena.

As early as May, he told Hawaii News Now that “I can’t elaborate on it completely right now, but think about the Natatorium and think about sand volleyball and how wonderful it would be if we could feature our sand volleyball players in Waikiki.”

And, according to the email trail, the governor told Carlisle in July that he could publicly announce plans to transfer the memorial to the state.

But Carlisle, who was fighting to retain his seat as mayor, made no such announcement — not in July, and not in August. He lost the primary last month to former governor, Ben Cayetano, and Kirk Caldwell, who are now in a runoff.

He did say when asked during a mayoral debate on July 11 that he was in discussions with Abercrombie about a volleyball court.

Since then, the party line has remained that no final decision has been made on the Natatorium. Indeed, Abercrombie could be having second thoughts.

But what city officials apparently didn’t want reporters or the public to know is that hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayers’ money has likely been wasted on studies that are no longer needed.

The city paid out $750,000 on a $1.3 million contract to Wil Chee Planning Inc. for the EIS and other studies related to plans to demolish the swimming pool and move the arches back to the the seawall. Carlisle quietly stopped the studies in May.

But this isn’t what Kahikina told KITV reporter Catherine Cruz in July when she called to ask about the status of the EIS.

Cruz asked whether the EIS was supposed to be done soon. Kahikina told her that it wasn’t supposed to be done until the end of the year. She didn’t bother to mention that the city had completely stopped work on it and in fact it wasn’t expected to be finished at all.

The situation flared up in August when the Kaimana Beach Coalition found out that the studies had indeed been stopped and started spreading that news to reporters.

When Cruz called the city to ask about the EIS, top officials devised a public relations plan: Say the study was put on hold, not cancelled.

The mayor’s press secretary, Louise Kim McCoy, took the deception a step further. In an August 21 email to William Aila, Jim Fulton, Carlisle’s executive assistant, and Kahikina, she wrote the following:

Just got off the phone with Cruz and told her the EIS is not cancelled and the City is still in discussions with the State.

She did NOT ask about the status of the EIS so I did not have to say that it was put on hold.

By the following day, the city was fending off media inquires, including those of Civil Beat, while saying as little as possible.

Kahikina briefed Aila on the situation and told him that she had made sure not to tell reporters from Civil Beat, KITV and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that state and city officials would be touring the Natatorium in a couple of weeks:

I did NOT tell them about our field visit scheduled at the end of the month. I did not want a media frenzy out there.

Friends of the Natatorium Enjoy a Seat at the Table

The emails also show that Donna Ching, vice president of the The Friends of the Natatorium, had repeated meetings and communications with state and city officials about the Natatorium. Ching, the nemesis of the Kaimana Beach Coalition, has worked for years to have the the Natatorium rebuilt or restored.

Ching is also development director for Leo A Daly, an architecture and planning firm, which had a contract to restore the Natatorium under former Mayor Jeremy Harris.

Apparently, she was involved in the city spin campaign. In an email to Fulton and Kahikina, Ching congratulates Kahikina on her responses to Honolulu Star-Advertiser reporter, Gordon Pang, and asks her to thank Abercrombie spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz. She notes that Rick Bernstein, a member of the Kaimana Beach Coalition, was causing trouble again.

Jim and Lori, FYI. The FoN is working on our strategy for a public response (if any) — below are some of our talking pOints. Lori, great job on the quotes to Gordon Pang. Rick Bernstein clearly shook a few reporter’s trees to see who/what would fallout. You guys did a nice job of holding the line. Thank Donalyn for us, too. Aloha, Donna

You can read the string of emails here:

Government Natatorium Communications 11-1-2011 to 8-22-2012
September 17, 2012
(PDF format, 2.8MB)

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