Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell is spending $1.2 million to hire consultants for a three-year plan to rejuvenate Honolulu’s deteriorating Ala Moana Beach Park.

I want to be optimistic about the plan. I want to believe the mayor when he says Oahu’s people will have the ultimate say when it comes to the revitalization of that park. I’m hopeful yet wary.

So were many of the other 350 citizens who showed up March 10 at McCoy Pavilion. Wary. They had been urged by the mayor to come to express their personal thoughts on how to improve the 81-year-old beach park that, since its opening, has been a haven for working people.

Ala Moana Park

A pathway on Magic Island that is to be resurfaced as part of improvements to Ala Moana Park.

Bob Jones

Ben Donsky of Biederman Redevelopment Ventures and Associates , a New York-based consulting firm the city has hired to help renew the park, repeatedly reassured the audience, “You guys will have the final say.”

Biederman is famous for setting up a private-public partnership to transform New York’s filthy, crime-ridden Bryant Park into one of the most popular parks in the city.

The mayor says everything is on the table for Ala Moana Beach Park. But that in itself is worrisome. It would be better if the mayor pointed out what is absolutely on the table as well as what is not on the table. People need a clearer idea of what could happen in the park so they don’t get hit with a bombshell at the end of the planning process.

Some participants at the meeting were worried the park spruce-up plan might have more to do with turning the “people’s park” into a rich people’s park for the millionaires snapping up the luxury condos across the street.

Honolulu residents have every reason to be dubious about government promises. They have been disappointed lately by too many bombshells.

Look at the rail transit system. Residents were promised the rail project would be on time and on budget. Now it’s close to $1 billion over budget and we might have to pay additional taxes for it forever.

And there’s the disappointment with Gov. David Ige, who campaigned with a promise to protect the aina yet now stubbornly insists Carleton Ching, a land developer’s lobbyist with no preservation experience, is the best person to protect state lands.

Or consider Kakaako. Whatever happened to the government’s proposal long ago to turn Kakaako into an affordable residential neighborhood for Honolulu’s poor and middle class workers? Not an overbuilt neighborhood for some foreigner investors to raid to collect luxury condos as financial instruments — places to park their money.

People are wary of being bamboozled again.

Caldwell calls Ala Moana Beach Park “our people’s park; it is our Central Park. It is our major gathering place for all of us who live here.”

But some participants at the meeting were worried the park spruce-up plan might have more to do with turning the “people’s park” into a rich people’s park for the millionaires snapping up the luxury condos across the street.

Ala Moana Park

Ala Moana Park is a favorite picnic area for local residents.

Bob Jones

“There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this park now,” said one woman. “Why spend money to change the park? Why not spend money to better maintain it?”

Others said it would be more helpful to enforce existing laws to urge dozens of homeless living under the trees at Ala Moana Beach Park to move on.

Many people at the meeting were concerned about future park commercialism.

The mayor himself has said, “For me, I would love to go somewhere where I can sit by the water and have a reasonably priced meal and have a beer.”

A woman at the meeting spoke for about 10 others sitting at her table when she said, “We don’t want restaurants at the park. We don’t want surf schools. We don’t want hot dog stands. Waikiki is Waikiki. We don’t want Waikiki.”

Park consultant Donsky said, “If you don’t want hot dog stands, we won’t have hot dog stands.”

At the meeting, one of the consultants pointed out that Ala Moana Beach Park is the front yard for people who live in Kakaako. But what about all the park users who don’t have front yards?

The park should continue be commerce-free, open space for all Oahu residents, especially hard-working people who live in tiny walk-ups or concrete box condos with no front or back yards, people who stare out of their buildings at other buildings; the regular people who flock to Ala Moana Beach Park now to breathe, barbecue and socialize with their friends.

The park serves for many of Honolulu’s working people as their living room, family room and personal garden, all in one, a tranquil oasis where they can refresh themselves.

They will be aced out if park space is taken away for commercial beach activities and restaurants. Money-paying restaurant-goers and tourists coming for stand-up paddling lessons will take away parking spaces and beach space from park users who regularly depend on Ala Moana for their after-work exercise and weekend picnics.

The park serves for many of Honolulu’s working people as their living room, family room and personal garden, all in one, a tranquil oasis where they can refresh themselves.

Marti Townsend, the executive director of the environmental organization Outdoor Circle, says, “Ala Moana is an urban beach opened to the people for free. That is what makes it special. Any move to try and squeeze more money out of the already overburdened people for commercial park activities is heartbreaking.”

The Outdoor Circle was at Ala Moana when the park opened in the 1934 as one of the key founders of the park.

Chris Dacus, the city’s executive assistant for historic parks, says any future commercial activities in Ala Moana Beach Park would be what local residents appreciate, not the Waikiki activities the tourists want.

Mark Berwick, the president of the Honolulu Lawn Bowls Club in the park, says people who come to Ala Moana don’t come to the park for commercial activities. They bring their own food and drinks with them. They carry their own surfboards and fishing poles.

Yet in spite of these concerns, I still believe there are reasons to be hopeful.

The mayor has invited the public in on the project from the very beginning and promised what the public wants, it will get. That’s a good thing. It is up to the people now to hold his feet to the fire.

People unable to attend future meetings on the project can post their concerns on a website the city has set up at www.ouralamoanapark.com.

Another encouraging sign is the city will begin work soon on three much-needed Ala Moana Beach Park improvements.

Ala Moana Park

Homeless people are a near-constant presence at Ala Moana Park.

Bob Jones

Caldwell says the city will be planting more trees on the brown, ugly areas between Ala Moana Boulevard and the park’s canals, while replacing the corroded 60-year-old irrigation system with a new watering system to grow the new trees and more green grass.

“Up until now, we have been doing a really good job of growing more brown dirt,” says Caldwell.

The other two improvements include a new pilot project bathroom at the site of the popular beach bathroom at Magic Island. The bathroom will have six new unisex bathroom stalls, each one with its own door opening to the Magic Island parking lot where regular police patrols are expected to discourage vandalism and criminal activities.

With the unisex stalls, women will have quicker access to bathroom facilities without the longer time it usually takes to get a stall in a bathroom for women only. “We will be bringing potty parity, “ jokes Dacus.

On the other side of the pilot-project bathroom stalls will be six shower stalls facing out to the beach.

Dacus says the toilet-shower facility will cost $500,000. It’s expected to be completed in the summer of 2016. If it works well, the pilot park bathroom will be duplicated in other Oahu parks.

The third project will be to re-coat the crumbling asphalt perimeter path around Magic Island with a new tennis-court-like surface and to mark intervals around the path to show walkers and runners how far they have progressed.

Dacus says that should cost $750,000.

Dacus says if there is money left over after the bathroom and path projects are completed, the funds will be used to install some outdoor exercise equipment on Magic Island.

The city says it is still too early to talk about details of the most important part of the Ala Moana Beach Park renovation. That is the mayor’s interest in setting up a private-public partnership, which is what has been done at many urban parks across the country, most famously, New York’s Central Park and also Manhattan’s Bryant Park.

Park conservancies are private non-profit organizations formed to restore and manage parks in partnership with city governments. Conservancies raise money from private donors for the parks to maximize the often meager public funding. It is a way to do more at a park with less government money, yet at the same time a city always retains control of the park for the citizens.

City Deputy Managing Director Georgette Deemer says in the future certain private businesses and residents will be brought into discussions of private-public partnerships, but for now it is important to talk about the initial three projects at Ala Moana Beach Park to give a sense of momentum and confidence that the city can do the renovations.

But it is good to lay all the cards on the table from the very beginning, to start talking about a possible Ala Moana Beach Park conservancy now. Many people would be interested. Park conservancies have worked well in other cities.

Mayor Caldwell is a history buff. He has more years in office but he is certainly already thinking of his legacy. With all the budget screw-ups and obfuscation, his legacy is not going to be the rail transit system. Perhaps the mayor’s legacy could be restoring Ala Moana and many other of our rotting city parks.

The regular people would remember renovations to parks they love and always be grateful.

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