Every morning surfers wade in the ocean a few hundred yards off Ala Moana Regional Park on Oahu’s south shore. Never turn your back on the ocean, they’re told, but the Koolau mountain range offers a pleasant view in the lull between sets of waves.

But these days the blue-glass walls of luxury condominium high-rises obscures the valleys.

One day, after Bruce Lum paddled in from the break he noticed something on the beach that set off alarm bells in his head. “It scared the hell out of me,” Lum said.  

A blue beach towel stretched out over warm sand. Perfectly folded white towels, a cooler, life jackets, beach chairs and paddle boards, all brand new and set out meticulously by employees of a nearby luxury condominium for the residents’ exclusive use.

Sharlene Chun-Lum captured a photo of the beach chairs, neatly folded towels and paddle boards set out for the Park Lane residents.

Courtesy of Sharlene Chun-Lum

Over the last two months, Lum said he’s seen employees from the Park Lane condominium set up and wait on park benches for 30 to 45 minutes before the residents arrive at the beach to use the beach toys.

“It’s kind of the commercializing of the beach,” said Sharlene Chun-Lum, Bruce’s wife.

Hawaii has a tradition of public beach access, says Ala Moana-Kakaako Neighborhood Board Chair Ryan Tam. Locals are quick to jump at the issue whenever they feel that access is threatened.  

Park Lane developers, who declined to comment for this story, tout the condominium project as a “private, residential resort.” Park Lane’s website explains that a “Residential Services team” will prepare “the perfect beach day, just for you.”

Like a beach caddie.

It’s not illegal to pay people to tote things around. The lines blur when a company runs a private enterprise on public land.

The city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, which operates Ala Moana Regional Park, regulates a litany of activities. Tuba and maracas players need a permit to play in city parks, as do picnickers in groups of 50 or more.

The city does not require Park Lane to have a permit for its activity, said parks spokesman Nathan Serota.  

Photography, paddle board and surf lessons, and scuba and snorkeling tours are the only commercial activities the department issues permits for, according to Serota.

In an emailed statement, parks Director Michele Nekota said the department has “communicated with Park Lane to ensure that all rules are being followed.”

The beach can’t be cordoned off for use without a permit, she said. Otherwise, the public is free to use the space on a first come, first serve basis.

Bruce Lum and Sharlene Chun-Lum drive in from Halawa on weekday mornings to exercise. They don’t come to Ala Moana beach on weekends, they say, to save room for working people.

Anthony Quintano / Civil Beat

Seeing Park Lane’s setup made well-known longboarder Roy “China” Uemura worry other condominiums will offer the same service on the beach.

“They’re opening up a can of worms,” said Uemura who, to beat traffic from his home in Salt Lake, heads to the park every day around 4:30 a.m.  

Sharlene Chun-Lum agrees.

“If every one of those condominiums decided it was a great idea to market this and they decided to set up, you know, for their guests, where will local people set up?” she said.

Park Space At A Premium

Beach chairs and umbrellas reserved for hotel guests clutter some sections of Waikiki beach.

Setting up areas on the beach reserved for guests, a service called “presetting,” concerned state lawmakers, so in 2014 the Legislature ordered the Department of Land and Natural Resources to work with the Royal Hawaiian and other beachfront hotels to come up with a solution.

In a 2017 report updating lawmakers on their progress, the group established guidelines that banned presetting on the state-owned section of the beach unless the customer was immediately present to use the equipment. If a caddie lugs a paddle board down to water, for example, the customer using the paddle board needs to be there ready to use it.

Space at Ala Moana Beach Park is increasingly at a premium as visitors and residents alike flock to the ocean front.

Groups of retired people regularly stop at Ala Moana beach on week days to enjoy the space before the weekend crowd.

Anthony Quintano/ Civil Beat

Groups of elderly people practice tai chi just after the sunrise. In the evening clusters of people do yoga throughout the park and would-be acrobats hang from fabric tied to trees.

Every Tuesday and Thursday evening Herbalife representatives lead a group in squats, sprints and burpees for free followed by a sales pitch. First timers get a free protein shake. A company offers $40 yoga classes on paddle boards a few yards from shore.

“When the class becomes bigger and let’s say they take up prime real estate at the park, that’s when it becomes a problem,” said state Rep. Tom Brower, who represents Ala Moana. “We have to start talking about that.”

Brower also pointed out that homeless people who camp at the park delineate their territory and store their things in public space indefinitely.

Even locals who just set up camp for the day, Brower said, become territorial about their space.

“I control this area,” Uemura, the surfer, said of the space between two coconut trees in front his parked white van. “This is my area.”

Park Lane’s Beach Service And Kakaako’s New Opulence

Over the last five years Kakaako transformed from an industrial district of auto body shops and wholesale stores to luxury high rises and boutiques. The Whole Foods that opened last Tuesday is within walking distance from a Core Power Yoga studio.

Groups like Kakaako United and Save Our Kakaako Coalition cropped up to voice community concerns about the development that seems to cater to the 1 percent. 

Park Lane residents can take a private elevator into Ala Moana Center, a large shopping center next to the condominium. Whoever bought the project’s most expensive penthouse was offered a trip around the world with the developers, Pacific Business News reported in 2016.

Surfers frequently comment on the impact the condominiums have on the city’s sewage infrastructure, and speculate what waste they might be wading inMeanwhile, on shore, city and state officials endlessly shuffle homeless people from one park to another.  

Surfers paddle out to Concessions, one of many popular breaks off Ala Moana Regional Park.

Anthony Quintano/ Civil Beat

For some locals, Park Lane’s beach service feels like having Kakaako’s new opulence rubbed in their face.

At first, Sharlene Chun-Lum and her husband just sat back and watched the Park Lane employees set up. Eventually, though, the couple started confronting them. 

At one point, they called the police on the employees for offering a commercial service on a public beach. After another encounter, Bruce Lum said the Park Lane employees called the police on him for alleged harassment.

Now that they’re retired they have time to be involved in things like this. “When we were so busy working we never saw our islands being robbed from us slowly,” Sharlene Chun-Lum said.

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