Forget beautification.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell has more to think about than just planting grass and building statues if he wants to successfully renovate Thomas Square.

The downtown park has been the central battleground in debates over free speech and homelessness for nearly two years after protesters set up camp as part of a movement that became known as (de)Occupy Honolulu.

On Monday evening, many of these protesters attended a community meeting at the Doris Duke Theater to discuss the future of Thomas Square. They held cardboard signs saying things such as “What part of free speech does HPD and C&C not understand” and “People No Planters.”

Caldwell briefly attended the Honolulu Museum of Art sponsored event, and in his 45 minutes there heard not only the oft-stated concerns of (de)Occupy Honolulu, but those of the Hawaiian sovereignty movement as well.

Caldwell left the Thomas Square meeting because he had to attend a memorial service at the State Capitol for fallen Honolulu police officers as part of National Police Week.

Of course, there were some town hall attendees who said they would like to see certain amenities, such as a pet play area and community gardens, but theses individuals seemed to be in the minority when considering all the underlying tensions in the room.

“This is not about any one person’s vision,” Caldwell told the audience at the beginning of the meeting. “It’s about all of us coming together.”

He added that any plan for Thomas Square likely would not be without controversy.

Caldwell has set aside $1 million in his budget to upgrade the park, which will be celebrating its 170th anniversary this year.

He’s also rousted the (de)Occupy Honolulu protesters by placing pink hibiscus planter boxes on the sidewalk along Beretania Street, although this has done little more than move the camp down the street.

The goal is to eventually step up enforcement with a new stored property law will allow city officials to seize property on public sidewalks. Caldwell has called this tactic a form of “compassionate disruption.”

But many in the audience criticized the mayor for how the city has addressed the protesters as well as homelessness. They said finding a way to get people off the streets should be a main component of any plan for Thomas Square.

“This is just a facade of a conversation to cover-up the issue of homelessness,” said Ilima Long-Makiki, of Honolulu. “It’s embarrassing … I feel ashamed of the way this city (and county) treats the homeless.”

Caldwell has vowed to make combating homelessness one of the top priorities of his administration. He even announced a new “Housing First” initiative last week that he hopes will get up to 100 of Honolulu’s most visible and difficult to treat homeless into apartments by the end of 2015.

Sovereignty was an undercurrent to much of Monday’s conversation, and in many ways plays an important role in the history of Thomas Square.

The 6.5 acre park is the site where the sovereignty of the Hawaiian Kingdom was restored by Great Britain on July 31, 1843 by Adm. Richard Thomas. King Kamehameha III spoke his now famous words at that moment, giving Hawaii it’s future state motto. Ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono. The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.

Aerial views of the park also show that the pathways through Thomas Square form the British flag.

Honolulu resident Baron Ching addressed this fact as he told the audience to consider the park’s history as they discussed its future.

“Thomas Square by its nature has always been a political place,” he said. “Just by it’s nature it is a political place.”

About the Author