Editor’s note: Our exploration of urban design, planning and architecture in Hawaii is continuing with the addition of a familiar voice. Curt Sanburn grew up in Honolulu and graduated from Iolani School before venturing to the mainland and Yale. He later helped to found the Honolulu Weekly, becoming a regular contributor and editor. Curt often wrote critically about local architecture and land-use issues. “Hawaii deserves the best built environment in the world,” he says, “but it so often comes up short.” 

“World class.”

What a stupid, meaningless phrase, especially in Hawaii, where we’re pretty sure we’re already living in God’s own paradise and everything else isn’t relevant. The only people who use the term are politicians and bad travel writers, or those who are selling something, or in Philadelphia.

Nevertheless, here we are in Honolulu, clucking about becoming world class even as we sink into third-world metrics, with a 20-mile elevated heavy-rail transit line, circa 1962, ready to mire us ever deeper into penury and ugliness.

Neal Blaisdell Concert Hall.  27 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Neal Blaisdell Center opened 50 years ago as the Honolulu International Center. The City of Honolulu is looking for input from the public on how best to transform the dated, three-venue campus into a new arts and culture center.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The city needs cash. It owns 22 acres of hot real estate, known to locals as the Blaisdell Center.

Coincidentally, it’s just mauka of Kakaako, where big money and big construction unions are happily sloshing around building a mini-Hong Kong. The planned Kakaako transit stop on Halekauila at Ward will offer the neighborhood a steady stream of westside commuters — and outbound service to the airport or Waipahu or to some as-yet un-subdivisioned fields east of Kapolei. In fact, the city is melding its brand-new “Blaisdell Center Master Plan” into its transit-oriented development planning process.

Two years ago, Mayor Kirk Caldwell asked a KITV reporter, “How can we make better use of this site?” as the camera panned across the peeling and mouldering, 51-year-old spaceship that is the Blaisdell Arena.

“I would love to see this site redeveloped,” he said, explaining that the Blaisdell Center needed to be “right-sized” to incorporate three separate venues: a concert hall, a theater for Broadway plays and some kind of revamped arena — and, no doubt, some right-sized commercial and/or residential development to make it all pencil out.

That same KITV news report had Tony Ching, the state’s Kakaako czar, talking about a prospective 700-foot apartment tower, almost twice the height of Honolulu’s current tallest buildings, somewhere near the transit stop. The implication was that the tower project might be slated for the Blaisdell site, or that it might be leveraged to fund renovations at the Center. In any case, cooler heads prevailed and that idea went nowhere, as did Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s hallucination about a huge tower near Mother Waldron Park.

So now the city has taken a new tack, soft-pedaling its intent to somehow fix up (or tear down?) the iconic Arena and Concert Hall and turn the Blaisdell campus into a new culture and arts center for the island. No plan, though. Not yet.

The city is listening: Caldwell hosted the first public workshop on the Blaisdell Master Plan one evening in early February at the center. The introductory PowerPoint began with the history of the Blaisdell, going all the way back to Papa and Wakea, and Haloa and the auwai that fed him; the loi kalo and the loko ia; the ahupuaa and the kahawai. Schematics and photographs summarized western influence, immigration and tourism.

The city is melding its brand-new “Blaisdell Center Master Plan” into its transit-oriented development planning process.

To begin imagining the future of the Blaisdell, the PowerPoint invoked other gathering places — the Waikiki Shell, the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, any big old banyan tree — and noted how public/private partnerships drive development at urban festival spaces like San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Gardens, the Seattle Center in Seattle and Granville Island in Vancouver. It offered up other troubled civic arenas around the country that faced problems and overcame them: gleaming, neon-lit fortresses like the American Airlines Center in Dallas, the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, the Nokia Theater in LA and the Resch Center in Green Bay (named after the CEO of a local furniture manufacturer).

Simultaneously, Caldwell’s Department of Planning and Permitting launched an interactive website called The Blaisdell Master Plan by Mindmixer. It urges its visitors (who must be considered geeky) to register and join the conversation by sharing their memories of the Blaisdell as well as their hopes for its future via a series of quiz-like questions.

Some answers are provided and can be clicked on, while others must be thought up and typed in. “What level of improvement is most appealing to you?” the website asked on Feb. 9. Seventeen people clicked on “complete redevelopment,” overwhelming the number of single-digit respondents who clicked “minor repairs,” “renovation,” or “partial redevelopment.”

On the other hand, most of the more recent typed-in comments reflect real affection for the Blaisdell as is, for its lawns and pond, and for its two shabby-chic pieces of real architecture: the unique Arena and the elegant Concert Hall.

As one respondent succinctly put it, he wants the Blaisdell “restored, upgraded and kept.”

According to another, “The best and most sustainable buildings are the ones we already have!”

Neal Blaisdell Arena. inside. 27 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Inside the Neal Blaisdell Arena.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hardly a scientific sampling of community sentiment, but it is what it is.

On March 11, the website posted a new quiz, which asked visitors to click on any of the 10 “recurring themes” for the future of the Blaisdell with which they agree. The most popular themes, distilled from the February workshop, include “maintain a campus with multiple venues,” “integrate the site’s rich history, including the natural spring, into its design and programming,” and “activate outdoor gathering spaces with plazas, events and activities.”

Least popular is “pursue private-public partnerships and revenue generating opportunities,” while “make the Blaisdell Center a world-class destination” comes in fifth. At press time, the consensus as reflected in the city’s website seems to be simply to restore the place and manage it better.

Imagining the Future, Connecting to the Past

Along with all this listening and social-media scoping, Caldwell announced a team of consultants to assist with the master plan: LA-based AECOM, a global conglomerate of construction firms with $19 billion in revenues last year; Lincoln Center Global of New York, a for-hire consultancy spun off from Lincoln Center itself after completion of that arts campus’s recent — and widely praised — $1.2 billion reconfiguration; and the busy Honolulu architecture firm WCIT, which has been making a name for itself by sketching literal Hawaiian imagery into its glittering designs, most notably in the controversial proposal, now on hold, for a beachfront condo/hotel tower at the Moana Surfrider Hotel whose crowning arches are meant to conjure a rack of surfboards, and the 36-story Waiea tower now under construction at Howard Hughes Development Company’s Ward Village.

The undulations in the glass curtain wall draping one side of the luxury condo are said to signify a fisherman’s net. Preposterous, I know, but at least two leading publications in Honolulu swallowed the ballyhoo whole.

I wonder if WCIT is thinking about a triumphal arch, big bronze soldiers, or maybe an eternal flame at Caldwell’s new Blaisdell … or better yet, a humongous maile lei: Fifty-one years ago, the Blaisdell was, in fact, formally dedicated as a memorial to Hawaii’s sons and daughters who fought and sometimes died in our country’s wars.

On a Saturday night in September 1964, 7,000 people gathered for the opening ceremonies for the ultra-modern, multi-purpose, $14.4-million Honolulu International Center (HIC). The event was outdoors on the ewa lawn under ancient, soaring coconut trees, leftovers from the previous occupant of the site, the Ward homestead known as the Old Plantation.

At the ceremony, according to contemporary news accounts, Rev. Abraham Akaka dipped ti leaves into a koa bowl once owned by Kamehameha that held water from Kawaiahao’s spring. Akaka shook the wet ti over a bronze plaque whose inscription dedicated the center to “All the Sons and Daughters of Hawaii, who Served their Country in Time of War and in Special Tribute to Those who Gave their Lives in Order that Freedom and Justice Might Prevail Throughout the World.”

The plaque, affixed to a boulder near the original box office, mysteriously disappeared years ago, according to Tanya Harrison of Pendleton, Ore., a former Hawaii resident and veterans advocate who’s on a mission to reestablish the forgotten sanctity of the place.

Following Akaka’s pule, Neal Shaw Blaisdell, Honolulu’s part-Hawaiian mayor, cut the maile lei and opened the center. The HIC was officially renamed the Neal S. Blaisdell Center following his death in 1975.

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