Diamond Head Theatre wants to build a new theater that will include what’s called a “fly loft.” The fly loft would be 60 feet tall.
Diamond Head Theatre is part of the Diamond Head Special District, where the height limit for all buildings is 25 feet.
That means the proposed high section of the new theatre would be more than twice as high as what it allowed by the current height restrictions.
“There is no question a height variance will be needed,” says Scott Ezer of HHF planners, who helped prepare the draft environmental assessment for the proposed project.
DHT hopes to break ground in 2018 to build a new theater with 500 seats — the same number of seats as the existing theater — on the vacant, higher sloping ground adjacent to the current building. The cost would be $22 million. So far, DHT has raised $8 million.
Deena Dray, executive director of DHT, says the height of the 60-foot fly loft is not set in stone. The theater group is already considering lowering the fly loft’s height to 50 feet because of cost considerations.
But 50 feet is still double the height allowed by law.
“We will have to provide justification to the city Department of Planning and Permitting for a height variance. There is no way around that,” says planner Ezer.
Neighborhood groups are gearing up to urge the city to reject the variance. A key concern is that the fly loft would obstruct legally protected views of Diamond Head.
“It would set a horrible precedent,” says Michelle Spalding Matson. “It ignores established regulations that were put there for a reason to protect the crater. The protective 25-foot height restriction was established over a long period of time with much public concern and dedication.”
Diamond Head resident Matson is president of the Oahu Island Parks Conservancy and a board member of the Diamond Head Citizens’ Advisory Committee.
Clark Hatch, a board member of the Diamond Head Citizens’ Advisory Committee and president of the East Diamond Head Association, also is opposed to the theater’s quest for a height variance.
Hatch says he initially gave a vote of approval for the new theater after a verbal presentation by DHT executive director Dray in February 2014.
But Hatch says he was unaware then of how high the new building would be. He says Dray did not show the Diamond Head Citizens’ Committee drawings and renderings.
“It was kind of deceptive; not telling us all the details,” says Hatch.
However, Dray says she was very clear then about the height of the fly loft.
Ezer says it was no secret. “We made it clear from the get-go that the fly loft was an essential part of the plan.”
He says the theater had been openly discussing a 60-foot-tall structure since 2009.
Hatch says when he saw the draft environmental impact statement in November, he was surprised by the height of the structure. “That really opened my eyes.”
“I will not support anything like the 60-foot fly loft. It violates the city’s laws and regulations. They must rethink this. They must make do with what is legal,” he says.
“They must rethink this. They must make do with what is legal.” — Clark Hatch, East Dimond Head Association
A fly loft is a tower that allows costumes and sets to be stored vertically and moved vertically off and on the stage.
Sets at Diamond Head Theatre are now rolled out to the stage horizontally from the sides of the backstage area of the facility.
John Rampage, artistic director of Diamond Head Theatre, says a fly loft is an essential feature in all modern theaters.
Punahou School has a fly loft that rises 56 feet, 8 inches from the floor of the stage. Kaimuki, Castle and Pearl City High Schools have 50-foot fly lofts. Kennedy Theatre at the University of Hawaii also has a fly loft.
“Almost every theater built in the last 100 to 200 years has a fly loft. The ancient Greeks first devised the concept of hoisting sets vertically on and off a stage,” Rampage says.
If the people who built Diamond Head Theatre in 1933 had known that it would be used primarily in the future for live theater productions, Rampage says, “they would have built a fly loft back then when they could make it as high as they wanted.”
The theater was built by the Army to be a movie house for the entertainment of soldiers and their families stationed at the Diamond Head coastal artillery installation called Fort Ruger.
When the Army no longer needed Fort Ruger, it turned over the land to the state, which in 1966 entered into a long-term lease with the theater. The theater’s current lease runs until 2073.
Rampage says the reason a fly loft is mandatory is that rolling the sets on and off the stage horizontally takes time and doesn’t fit in with the pace of today’s productions.
In old time theater, music used to be played as the audience waited patiently for horizontal set changes.
“The attention span of today’s audience is different, “ says Rampage. “Set changes need to happen immediately. You don’t want to leave the audience waiting in the dark.”
George West, chairman of the Diamond Head-Kapahulu-St. Louis Heights Neighborhood Board No. 5, says Dray made a presentation about the new theater to the neighborhood board in 2014 but until he received a copy of the draft environmental assessment he was unaware of the need for a height variance.
West says the board will meet Feb. 11 to take a formal position on the plan.
“Although Diamond Head Theatre is much loved in the community, there is already a lot of concern among the board members about the height of the new building,” says West.
The Waialae-Kahala Neighborhood Board No. 3 has not taken a position on the theater yet but it will take up the issue at its board meeting Jan. 21.
The proposed new theater not only will be taller than the current one but also will have more floor space for classes, rehearsals and dressing rooms, as well as more bathrooms.
The total floor area will be 24,440 square feet, which is 30 percent larger than the current theater.
Dray say after much review it was determined that building a new theater would be more efficient and less costly than renovating the current theater, which she says is dilapidated, crowded and plagued by a leaking roof.
“It is held together with chicken wire and duct tape, “ jokes Dray.
The plan is to keep the current Diamond Theatre in operation while the new one is being built. Then the old one will be demolished to create open space in front of the new theater.
“There will be more green space and a better view of Diamond Head our theater-goers have today,” says Dray.
“I think on the balance this is a wonderful project for Honolulu and it will not have a negative effect.” Diamond Head Theatre planner Scott Ezer
The theater parking lot will be kept in its current location but it will repaved and softened with new landscaping.
In the environmental assessment, the planners contend that landscaping around and near the theater as well as design elements and building color and the deeper setback of the new theater will make the it “appear less obtrusive than the existing theater.”
Planner Ezer says,“Critics are dramatically overstating the visual impact of the new theater. I would challenge anyone to demonstrate that any of the 27 vantage points and viewing areas mentioned in Diamond Head Special District legislation would be impacted by the theater. The theater will not compromise any of the vantage points or viewing areas.”
Ezer says to make his point his company will include a complete visual analysis in the final environmental assessment that will study all the views the Diamond Head Special District legislation was created to protect.
“I know people are emotionally attached to Diamond Head and the area around Diamond Head and I know why they are concerned but I think on the balance this is a wonderful project for Honolulu and it will not have a negative effect,” says Ezer.
Diamond Head preservationist Matson says in written comments that the city should require a full environmental impact statement instead of an environmental assessment, and “be wary of the proposed project’s damaging precedent” when projects taller then the Diamond Head limits are presented in the future.
The theater expects it will take at least a year to get necessary permits, which include a modification to the existing use permit and a Diamond Head Special District permit.
Andrew Pereira, spokesman for Mayor Kirk Caldwell, writes in an email:, “There have been no recent height limit exemptions granted in the Diamond Head Special District.”