Plans for upgrades and new management of Honolulu’s Thomas Square were panned in a letter sent to the city earlier this week by a group of community activists.
“My nightmare is that it’s going to turn into a place with a lot of commercial activity,” said Henry Curtis, director of Life of the Land and one of the signers of the letter.
Others included groups like the Ka Lei Maile Alii Hawaiian Civic Club, and a number of individuals.
Of particular concern to the letter-writers is a plan to transfer management authority of Thomas Square from Honolulu’s Department of Parks and Recreation to the Department of Enterprise Services. That could result in “radical change” and introduce “commercialization” to the 6.4-acre downtown park that is historically known as a hub for political activism, Curtis said.
“They want to see (Thomas Square) as a revenue cow,” Curtis said.
The Department of Enterprise Services manages municipal golf courses, the Waikiki Shell concert venue, the Honolulu Zoo and the Neal S. Blaisdell Center across the street from Thomas Square. All of those venues charge admission fees.
The letter-writers are worried the park’s current users won’t have access following the change in management.
The letter states that in a 2001 executive order, then-Gov. Ben Cayetano put the City and County of Honolulu in charge of the park’s management. The letter argues the city’s plans for Thomas Square violate a state law and go against the executive order regarding public land use.
The state owns the land under Thomas Square, and leases it to the city.
Because the state owns the land, the city needs approval from the state’s Board of Land and Natural Resources before it can transfer the park to the Department of Enterprise Services.
The letter calls for the city to either withdraw its request to the BLNR, or for the board to deny the request.
BLNR spokeswoman Deborah Ward wrote in an email Wednesday that “we have not yet seen the letter so have no comment at this time.”
Guy Kaulukukui, director of the Department of Enterprise Services, wrote in an email this week that the transfer “will in no way impact the current use of the park by certain groups or the general public.”
In August Kaulukukui told Civil Beat columnist Denby Fawcett that “We are trying to get the park used by more people. We are not trying to get the homeless out. The use of the park is not balanced now. We want more families in the park more often.”
Opponents aren’t convinced.
“There’s no guarantee he will keep that promise,” said Lindsey Wilbur, a University of Hawaii political science student who signed the letter. “This is part of a much larger battle between the city and the people who use the park.”
Thomas Square is where the sovereignty of the Hawaiian Kingdom was restored by Great Britain on July 31, 1843, after a five-month illegal occupation by British Navy Capt. George Paulet.
Every year, the park hosts the annual La Hoihoi Ea gathering, which commemorates that ceremony and hosts advocates for Hawaiian sovereignty. It’s also the site of the annual Honolulu Intertribal Pow-Wow gatherings.
“That’s kind of a traditional venue for the public to speak up,” said H. Doug Matsuoka, a member of the (de)Occupy Movement that had encampments in Thomas Square in 2012 and 2013.
Every Sunday, Matsuoka and others use Thomas Square for what they call “Food Not Bombs,” offering free food, clothing and books to people in need.
Matsuoka fears such events won’t be permitted, especially if the park is being used as an extension of events at the Blaisdell Center.
He’s also concerned the city will capitalize on the park’s current cultural events, turning them into profit-driven events for mass appeal.
An environmental assessment draft includes a list of proposed park changes, including the installation of a flagpole and a statue of King Kamehameha III, who spoke at the park on the day of sovereignty restoration in 1843.
It also would make for food trucks, a small concession stand and a performance space for the Royal Hawaiian Band.
Sam Mitchell is one of the letter-signers and a long-time member of the Makiki-Tantalus Neighborhood Board.
Mitchell isn’t against park improvement efforts, but is concerned that the free services for the needy will give way to food sales at concession stands. He said he was speaking for himself, not for the neighborhood board.
He’s worried that if the park comes under the jurisdiction of the Department of Enterprise Services, it won’t have to consult the neighborhood board before altering park rules.
Already, Mitchell feels the neighborhood board lacks a voice in plans for the park’s transformation, including the environmental assessment process.
Matsuoka, who said he attended all the public meetings on Thomas Square, felt the gatherings were designed to push DES’ own agenda. He filmed and posted the meetings on YouTube.
“The environmental assessment is basically promulgated by the city for the city,” Curtis said.
Read the activists’ letter below: