There has been much discussion lately on redevelopment of Thomas Square. More than $1 million is being spent redoing the lawn, trees and restrooms, and there are plans to transfer it from Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation to the Department of Enterprise Services.

But how many are aware of redevelopment plans for Honolulu’s war memorial auditorium – the Neal S. Blaisdell Center? $12 million is budgeted next year for Blaisdell Center redevelopment, a project that is currently estimated to cost about $400 million.

The Blaisdell is a “living” or functional war memorial, a common type of memorial from the mid-20th century. Living memorials follow a dual purpose of honoring veterans while also serving the community. The city recognizes that the 53-year-old center needs improvements to continue its service as a cultural and entertainment center.

The problem is, the community it is intended to serve does not appear to be adequately engaged.

Neal Blaisdell Arena outside. 27 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The Neal S. Blaisdell Center was built as a war memorial. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A public meeting was held in 2015 and a feasibility study announced last December. The preferred option is to replace the Exhibition Hall and renovate the historic Arena and Concert Hall. An outdoor rehearsal venue, retail development, and private management are also planned. There was no public comment on these options before publication, nor has there been a public meeting afterwards for Q&A or to solicit input for the project’s next phase.

Why are such drastic changes being considered for this iconic community center with so little public involvement?

An update was presented by the Department of Planning and Permitting at the March Ala Moana-Kakaako Neighborhood Board meeting. We learned that public meetings are planned later this year to share design concepts and discuss an environmental assessment. A slew of questions and comments followed. One gentleman stated he was unaware of Blaisdell redevelopment until he saw it on that evening’s agenda.

This kind of public discourse is healthy and needed, but there are important questions that should be discussed openly before this process continues. These include:

• With the problems of rail, homelessness, and infrastructure, why is this a priority? Wouldn’t it be more prudent to simply renovate? The initial estimate of $400 million could easily balloon to more than $ 1 billion. While the powers-that-be wrangle over revenue increases to balance the budget, discussion of Blaisdell redevelopment, budgeted for $12 million next year, is not on the public’s radar.

• Will construction work around event schedules, or shut down buildings entirely? If shut down, for how long and where would events be moved?

• What about businesses and other entities dependent on the Blaisdell? The Hawaii Symphony would not survive if the Concert Hall is closed for an extended time. Other businesses could fail if access to the Exhibition Hall is lost. How is Blaisdell redevelopment beneficial if closing venues results in the loss of cherished local entities such as the Symphony?

• What about the Exhibition Hall is failing users that can’t be corrected through renovation of the existing structure? In other words, is a new Exhibition Hall a want or a need?

• Private management of the Blaisdell is being considered. Would this raise ticket prices? Would operations, which are now public record, become proprietary once contracts are signed? How is this beneficial to the community?

• Will enough parking be added? I understand some additional parking is planned, but not too much due to rail. The Concert Hall is over 15 minutes by foot from the closest planned rail station. How many Blaisdell users who currently drive are expected to switch to rail?

• Will construction damage or pollute the spring that currently feeds the fishponds and flows into Kewalo basin?

• Will noise from the proposed outdoor performance venue cause issues with local residents?

I know there are more pressing issues than Blaisdell redevelopment, but by the time this does become pressing, it may be too late to change course. If we’ve learned anything from the rail debacle, it should be to get it right from the beginning.

Blaisdell users recognize improvements are needed, but the extent of those improvements and what they may entail need more community input. The owners of the Blaisdell, citizens of Oahu, are its largest stakeholder, and this should be a community-driven process.

I ask that the city slow this project temporarily to reach out more to the community. But this is a two-way process: the citizens who own the Blaisdell also need to step up and make their voices heard.

The Neal S. Blaisdell Center war memorial is Oahu’s community center, so if you care about it, get involved. Whatever is built will be around for another 30-plus years, so let’s get this done right.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a current photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

About the Author