A Honolulu City Council committee has approved a resolution asking the city to maintain Thomas Square as a public park.
The committee approval Tuesday comes amid city plans to transfer management of the 6.5-acre park from the Department of Parks and Recreation to the Department of Enterprise Services, a move that activists and community members fear would result in commercialization of the park.
“It’s really a red flag for the community,” said Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, who co-introduced the resolution. “Maybe today there won’t be any fees and charges and it will be operated as a park, but in the future if it’s not declared a park, that’s the worry.”
Plans to transfer management of the park to the Department of Enterprise Services are part of the city’s proposed Thomas Square Master Plan, which includes adding a statue of King Kamehameha III in a plaza that’s large enough for public gatherings, restoring the comfort station and storage building and upgrading the park’s aesthetics.
Guy Kaulukukui, director of the Department of Enterprise Services, said at Parks, Community and Customer Services Committee meeting that Thomas Square will still be a park under his department, and the idea is for it to serve as the go-to place for public events and gatherings – free to the public.
Kaulukukui said rules require that events at Thomas Square have to remain free, and in order for his department to set or change a fee for use, it would need to go through the council.
But critics think the change in how the park is operated will bring about an unwanted cultural shift.
“I think we see it as introducing commercialization into potentially all activities at Thomas Square, thus radically changing the culture of how people will be allowed to use the park,” said Leimomi Khan, who testified at the meeting.
She said what matters in the end is what’s on the record.
“We believe that what is on the record should be that, ‘this is a public park for and about our people to use, and not about enterprise or commercialization,’” she said.
Kaulukukui also said his department wants to provide more frequent maintenance at the park than the parks department has been able to provide. His office has a maintenance and grounds crew of about 75 employees that already take care of the 22 acres that make up the adjacent Neal S. Blaisdell Center, which the city is looking at redeveloping.