Mr. President:

If you are taking a break from your golf games and shave ice forays and happen to be reading Honolulu Civil Beat, I have an urgent plea.

Please persuade your Hawaii supporters to drop their earnest and well-intended proposal to build an Obama Presidential Center at Point Panic.

As a body surfer, you know Point Panic is a singular site loved by board and body surfers. It’s an ocean Mecca that does not need to be hemmed in by another big building. If your people must have your center at Kakaako, they should at least push it back from the shoreline.

Oceanfront park space at Point Panic needs to be expanded, not reduced. Kakaako Makai is the last undeveloped shoreline in Honolulu. The 30-acre Kakaako Waterfront Park must be set aside for the community and particularly for residents of what will be the most crowded new development in urban Honolulu. Thirty new high-rise buildings are projected for Kakaako in the next 20 years, with a population expected to soar from 12,000 to more than 30,000 residents.

The last thing the stressed-out concrete dwellers will need is another building that blocks off the ocean, even if it honors your legacy. The President has declined to say where he wants his presidential center but Chicago is considered to be the logical city because it is where Barack Obama came of age as a community organizer, met his wife, raised his family and began a political career that led to the White House. The University of Chicago and Chicago State University are already vying to house the center. The New York Times reported earlier this month that Obamaʻs advisers, including very close friend and counselor Valerie Jarrett, are making a full-court press for Chicago (N.Y. Times, Dec. 16, 2013, “Obama Library, Advisersʻ Dream.”)

But that’s not stopping Hawaii from lining up for consideration. University of Hawaii Manoa associate professor Robert Perkinson is spearheading an effort by the UH and the state to have an Obama Presidential Center in Hawaii — even if the Honolulu center turns out to be a satellite of the main Obama library and policy facility in Chicago.

Perkinson and others in the Obama Presidential Center Initiative Project Committee are looking at an 8-acre site directly on the ocean at Point Panic at the southeastern corner of Kakaako between the Childrenʻs Discovery Center and Kewalo Marine Laboratory.

Perkinson says the UH has pitched in approximately $100,000 to pay for planning and documentation to allow Hawaii to make a formal bid for consideration. Organizations such as the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Kamehameha Schools, the Howard Hughes Corporation, Hawaiian Electric Industries and Punahou School have raised another $100,000.

At this point everything is preliminary. Nothing can be formal until Obama sets up a non-profit foundation to raise money for the center and help him evaluate potential sites. He is expected to put together his foundation early next year. Perkinson says that even though he is only talking conceptually at this point, he envisions a future Honolulu Obama center to be “iconic oceanfront architecture of postcard beauty.”

Perkinson says, “Presidential centers generally have a lot of green space around them. A civic building would be compatible with Kakaako makai and make the neighborhood come alive, drawing more residents to the park.”

He says building an Obama center on this prominent oceanfront site could help protect it from much more intensive development in the future because developers are often reluctant to move ahead with massive projects where there are already longtime educational and civic structures in place.

But other community leaders suggest that, if Honolulu is selected as a satellite to a main Obama Presidential Center, Honoluluʻs facility should not be located directly on the oceanfront but, rather, farther inland from Point Panic. “I am not saying, ‘Obama stay out of our park.’ I am saying please do not take open space that needs to be expanded for the growing population of the state,” says Michelle Spalding Matson.

Matson is member of the community advisory group established by the legislature to create a master plan for Kakaako Makai to guide the Hawaii Community Development Authority as it redevelops the area.

Wayne Takamine, chairman of the advisory group, considers a possible presidential structure at the Point Panic shoreline “very intimidating, especially on land that the advisory council recommended (should) be expanded into public park space.”

Matson suggests a better idea would be to combine the present UH Kakaako Marine Laboratory and a Hawaii Obama Center in a shared mission, and move the lab from its current location at Point Panic to another area about a block inland. She says the new joint center could address issues dear to Obama, such as climate change and rising ocean levels.

Matson says the facility could be situated on the 7.5 acres bordered by Ahui, Ilalo, Ohe and Olomehani Streets that are now used as a parking lot. The area is nicknamed the “Piano Lot, “ because of its grand piano shape.

But Robert Richmond, the director of the Kewalo Marine Laboratory, says the Piano Lot is too far from the ocean. The lab needs a continuing source of fresh seawater for its research.

Richmond says that in the next five to 10 years the Kewalo Marine Lab could move mauka of Point Panic to a new expanded facility on the large lot behind the former John Dominis Restaurant, now known as 53 By The Sea.

“We donʻt have to be located right at Point Panic. We just need to be next to sea water,” says Richmond.

Richmond is a proponent of the Kewalo lab sharing its new building with a satellite Hawaii presidential center to work on Obamaʻs early push to establish a national ocean policy.

He adds that a modernized and enlarged Kewalo Lab could be the scientific engine in a satellite Obama center focused on the study of climate change and that it could involve Hawaii students in ocean research as part of their science, technology, engineering and mathematics studies.

But it is important to point out that both the Piano Lot and the lot behind the 53 By The Sea restaurant are owned by OHA. OHA may have other revenue-generating plans for the properties.

At this point, Perkinson says all ideas have merit but he calls the oceanfront area at Point Panic the most compelling site for an action-orientated educational center to continue building President Obamaʻs legacy.

“I regard it as foolish to propose to the President a facility that fails to showcase the biggest advantage Hawaii has, which is its waterfront beauty. I want to play the best card we have — land on the sea with an unobstructed view on which inspiring architecture could stand proud as an icon.”


DISCUSSION Where do you think a President Obama Center should be built in Hawaii?

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