Two tiny parks at the foot of Diamond Head are among the most beautiful parks owned by the city. But since they were created in the 1970s, they have remained largely unused.
Park-goers shun Makalei Beach Park and Leahi Beach Park because both lack parking access and each initially was enclosed by an iron fence that made it seem more like private property than a public place.
In the past, the only activities going on at the two parks have been an occasional wedding or photo shoots of fashion models.
But all that is changing because of a gift from a Diamond Head millionaire who likes to work quietly behind the scenes. The city says commercial real estate investor Jay Shidler’s donation of more than half a million dollars is the largest single gift the city has ever received from a private individual to improve an Oahu park.
Shidler has given $511, 555 for the specific purpose of beautifying Makalei and Leahi Beach Parks and maintaining each for a year.
“Public places are not getting the financial support they need. My prognosis is it is not going to get better in the future.” —Jay Shidler
He says the larger goal is his hope to inspire other citizens to donate money or their time or even their consideration to care for mini-parks in their own neighborhoods.
“Sometimes all a park needs is a little tender, loving care,” says Shidler.
Shidler says he became interested in helping Honolulu’s parks after watching public funding dwindle.
“Every city in the country is under financial pressure. Public places are not getting the financial support they need. My prognosis is it is not going to get better in the future,” he says.
He adds that people may not be aware that it is legal for a private citizen to donate money to help parks.
It may be intimidating for a private person to think of supporting a large public park, but Shidler says supporting smaller, pocket parks might seem possible to a park’s neighbors and users.
The city Parks and Recreation Department categorizes a mini-park as any park with 2 acres or less of land. There are 32 mini-parks on Oahu.
Shidler says, “If there is a sense of involvement, good things can happen rather than bad things.”
City Parks Director Michele Nekota says she has noticed that when there’s private involvement in a city park, vandalism and graffiti decrease. “People are more inclined to call 911 for help when they see illegal activities,” says Nekota.
If you drive on Diamond Head Road today you will notice the improvements to Makalei and Leahi parks are already underway.
The intimidating iron fences have been removed and replaced with low lava rock walls that open up unobstructed views to the ocean and, as Shidler points out, “Provide comfortable places to sit.”
Ten new palm trees have been planted in Leahi Park as part of the plan to improve the landscaping in both parks and enhance each park with new hearty grass that can withstand the sea air.
New walkways are being installed in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. Shrubs are being added. Irrigation systems in each park are being renovated.
The intention is to make each park more user-friendly.
There are no plans to add parking lots to either Leahi or Makalei Beach Park, but Nekota says she is not worried about that.
She expects the increasing numbers of pedestrians, bikers and joggers now passing through Diamond Head Road will be attracted to the renovated parks.
Shidler is providing about $50,000 for the maintenance of Leahi and Makalei parks for one year, but he hopes neighbors will step in later to donate money to continue helping pay for park maintenance.
“A lot of folks in the neighborhood have said they might chip in to maintain the parks. They are thinking, ‘Let’s keep it nice. Pass the hat. Everyone chip in.’”
When I told my hairdresser, Christie Au of Pauoa, about Shidler’s gift to improve the parks in hopes of inspiring others, she was moved.
Former Mayor Frank Fasi’s intention to expand Kapiolani Park along the sea never advanced beyond the purchases of Leahi and Makalei parks.
“It’s a nice thought. Not everyone can afford to give money, but people might want to give their ideas or their time to help their own nearby parks,” she says.
Nekota called Shidler’s donation to the parks a huge step forward and an example of his love for Hawaii and his wish to improve its recreational areas.
Shidler is a self-made millionaire who came to Hawaii, as he puts it, “as an Army brat,” the child of an Army officer. He graduated from the College of Business at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 1968.
He is the founder of The Shidler Group, a Hawaii-based real estate investment firm that owns more than 2,000 commercial properties across the United States and Canada.
The UH College of Business was named after Shidler in 2006 when he gave $25 million to the school. Last year he increased his financial commitment to $100 million. It is the largest gift ever given to the University of Hawaii.
Shidler is not given to showing off. “Although they do have my name on the school,” he laughs.
“Please downplay me as a person. My goal is to have an impact.”
Besides being beautiful, Leahi Beach Park and Makalei Beach Park have historic importance. Both parks were created on residential land the city purchased through condemnation in the 1970s as part of then-Mayor Frank Fasi’s grand but never fulfilled plan to extend Kapiolani Park along the ocean to the Diamond Head Lighthouse.
Fasi was motivated to create more park space after Honolulu residents successfully fought to stop a plan by the late financier Chinn Ho, the late Hawaii lieutenant governor candidate Kenny Brown, and other Diamond Head property owners to build a string of apartments and hotels on the coast stretching from Poni Moi Road to the Diamond Head Lighthouse.
In an interview in the Honolulu Advertiser on April 12, 1967, Ho told a reporter that with increased air travel to Hawaii, the need for more hotels outside of Waikiki Beach was a reality. “In 10 years time, Kahala will be zoned for hotels. I am talking about the area from the Diamond Head Lighthouse to Kahala including Black Point. “
Ho scrapped his development plan for the Diamond Head coast after the Honolulu City Council in 1967 voted against allowing further high-rise development along Diamond Head.
In 1976, when the city condemned the residential land where Leahi Beach Park is now, the landowner, Jiroichi Otani, was still trying to get permits to cram 11 luxury low-rises onto the 55,894-square-foot property.
Fasi’s intention to expand Kapiolani Park along the sea never advanced beyond the purchases of Leahi and Makalei parks. City planners told me it became too expensive to buy additional land on Diamond Head for park space. Also, the City Council at the time was reluctant to lose future property tax revenue from the valuable Diamond Head coast residential properties.
Makalei and Leahi Beach parks stand as important reminders of the high-rise commercial development that could have happened along Diamond Head Road if residents nearly 50 years ago had not cared about the protection of the important oceanfront land just as Jay Shidler is caring for its preservation today.
“I just do what I can do,” says Shidler. “It is a model. It may work a little. It may work a lot. It is a model.”
City parks spokesman Jon Hennington says people who want to help care for a mini-park in their neighborhood but are unsure of how to begin may call Clinton Jamile, the City’s Adopt A Park coordinator, at 768-3007, for ideas and assistance.
Here is a list of Honolulu’s 32 mini-parks.