Some Diamond Head residents are urging the foundation operating the former Doris Duke home, now the Shangri La Center for Islamic Arts and Culture, to back away from its $2.5 million plan to dismantle a breakwater fronting the opulent property of the late tobacco heiress.
Frank Brandt, who lives on Papu Circle near the entrance to Shangri La, calls the proposed breakwater demolition “a stupid thing to do.”
Brandt says, “It will create an eyesore and probably result in more serious problems down the road.”
Duke constructed the breakwater between 1937 and 1938 to create a harbor for her two boats and a swimming hole for guests at her part-time home.
Visitors tour the Shangri La estate by the harbor formed by a breakwater built in the 1930s.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
In the decades since, that harbor has become one of Oahu’s most dangerous swimming holes. It is particularly attractive to young men, who like to dive into its shallow basin at the Waikiki end headfirst or make high level jumps close to the seawall.
Since 1993, two young men have been permanently paralyzed from spinal injuries they suffered after flinging themselves into the basin. The men’s families received undisclosed settlements after they sued the Duke estate for negligence.
In 2014, the foundation erected a six-foot fence along the seawall but that hasn’t deterred some of the more daring jumpers, who now crawl around the fence or climb to the top of it on ladders to make higher and even more dangerous plunges.
Now, the foundation plans to dismantle the breakwater down to a volcanic dike below it and transfer the breakwater’s rocks, along with other imported rocks, over to the shoreline seawall to protect and stabilize it. This will create a very rugged rocky shoreline that even the dumbest teenage boy would think twice about diving into.
The rocky wall that forms a breakwater and creates a unique swimming hole has become a liability for owners of the Shangri La Center for Islamic Arts and Culture. They’ve tried to keep people out with fences but now are considering taking out the breakwater.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
“We want to avoid the serious and tragic accidents that have happened here in the past,” says Konrad Ng, executive director of Shangri La.
Ng invited Brandt and other Diamond Head residents living near Shangri La to a meeting Nov. 18 to talk about the foundation’s proposed safety enhancements.
The museum has made it a practice to include the neighbors in the discussion when it plans to make a major change.
Dr. Fred Fong, who lives next door to Shangri La, says that tearing down the breakwater would result in “tragic loss of a beautiful oceanfront structure.”
Fong brought pictures to the meeting to suggest other less costly modifications to the sea wall and fence to prevent swimmers from jumping.
Ng says that under the foundation’s new plan the shoreline will be restored to a more natural state, like it looked before Duke built the harbor.
I think it would be difficult if not impossible to make the shoreline look natural again after the major alterations Duke made 78 years ago to create her harbor.
Duke’s changes back then included the massive seawall which pedestrians use today to access the harbor, a stone stairway into the ocean and the Koko Head breakwater frequented by fishermen. All of these features will be left untouched.
This is a photo conceptualization of what the area would look like once the breakwater is revamped.
Courtesy: Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art
Planner Brandt says it will take years to get the necessary permits to remove the breakwater. Brand says in the meantime the museum should try to increase ocean safety with smaller, less costly modifications.
Brandt is the former chairman of PBR Hawaii, one of the largest planning companies in the state.
He says the harbor with its breakwater is valuable historically as an integral feature of the Shangri La residence and as such should be preserved. “Nothing like it could ever be built again,” he says.
Donna Chuck, another nearby neighbor, also urged the foundation to consider alternatives to the breakwater demolition, such as hiring more security guards to dissuade kids from hurting themselves.
“Why not try that instead of disrupting our whole oceanfront?” Chuck urged.
But Ng says security guards deployed by the museum in the past have failed to deter the jumpers because the guards lack authority to kick anyone out. Oceanfront access is a public right in Hawaii.
Another neighbor suggested smearing marine grease on the fence to keep climbers off it.
Scott Ezer says unless the basin in filled with a physical detriment like rocks and materials that stick up out of the water people will find a way to make daredevil jumps.
Ezer is a principal of HFF Planners, the company hired to do the environmental assessment for the project.
Not all the neighbors were upset about the project. Lani Blissard, who lives on Papu Circle, says she admires the foundation’s efforts to keep the neighbors informed about its plans.
“The foundation has analyzed the problem carefully,” she says. “They have a safety issue. They have to mitigate the problem. If there were another alternative, the foundation would have embraced it.”
This photo shows how the coast looked before Doris Duke altered the shoreline with breakwaters and the swimming area.
Courtesy: Doris Duke Photograph Collection
I have been coming to swim in the Shangri La basin since I was a teenager. I used to walk to Cromwell’s (as it is known to surfers) from our house in Kahala after school, preferring to swim in the sandy-bottomed basin rather than the coral-filled beach fronting our house. My friends and I liked to sit on the breakwater to watch the surfers at Cromwell’s, named after Duke’s first husband, James Cromwell. Afterward, we would climb down the rocks into the ocean.
It’s a shame to have to destroy the breakwater structure because of the daring but stupid antics of jumpers who are increasingly enticed to the site by travel and social media websites.
The breakwater removal project is outlined in a draft environmental assessment filed with the state’s Office of Environmental Quality.
The public has until Dec. 8 to comment on the environmental assessment. But Ng says the foundation will accept comments even after that date.
I will refrain from making a formal comment because my own thoughts about the project are too emotional. I just wish it didn’t have to be this way.
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Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.