- Special Projects
For several years now, there have been two basic options for what to do with the Waikiki Natatorium: “pool” or “beach.”
Either restore the dilapidated World War I memorial and its saltwater pool, which has languished for decades, or move its distinct arches away from the water and revive the beach there.
On Monday, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced a third way: Tear down most of the Natatorium’s existing seawall and replace it with a “perimeter deck” around the swimming area. Under that proposal, the Natatorium’s bleachers and arches would stay in place.
The idea, he and city officials said, stems from discussions with the State Historic Preservation Division.
“When we showed them the alternatives that we had” — essentially the pool and beach options — “they said that there needed to be an in-between,” Robert Kroning, the city’s Department of Design and Construction director, said at a news conference Monday also attended by the mayor.
“We need to try to save more of the structure than we’re doing, even if that means not creating a pool,” Kroning said, explaining the perimeter deck approach.
Those platforms would be raised above the water with supporting columns, creating an area for the public — not just monk seals — to swim directly in front of the Natatorium.
The timing of the news conference was curious: A draft environmental impact statement outlining these three options isn’t expected to be presented to the public until next summer, and the final EIS likely won’t be released until 2019.
Caldwell told the media that the point of Monday’s event was to “let the public know that we haven’t forgot and that the process continues, and that we are working hard and will continue to do so.”
Caldwell estimated that both the beach and the perimeter-deck options would cost $20 million to $30 million, although he did not specify how the city might cover that. The swimming pool option would cost $40 million to $60 million, he said.
City officials have repeatedly said in recent months that it’s getting harder to balance the budget. In September, the City Council reluctantly signed off on a plan to cover some $160 million in rail administrative costs, and city officials have said that collective bargaining agreements and debt payments are making it harder to balance the budget.
“Every year it’s a struggle for the city,” then-Deputy Budget Director Gary Kurokawa told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in March. “It’s never a position that we have extra money.” Kurokawa now serves as Caldwell’s chief of staff.
Despite those challenges, Caldwell on Monday suggested that the city set aside money in its budget to fix the Natatorium as that work approaches.
A key question going forward is whether all the community groups who’ve debated the Natatorium’s future will accept whichever vision eventually emerges from the EIS process.
Diamond Head resident Rick Bernstein heads the Kaimana Beach Coalition, and he’s spent years pushing to restore the beach at the Natatorium. He believes that’s the best approach for the local community.
He’s not sure yet whether he would embrace the perimeter-deck design.
“This is a mishmash,” Bernstein said of the proposal after listening to Caldwell on Monday. “I haven’t studied it. I don’t know. I think that keeping the bleachers is a giant mistake because it opens the door to commercialization.”
“Twenty-five hundred seats in service of what?”
Meanwhile, Mo Radke, president of the nonprofit Friends of the Natatorium, which has spent more than 30 years pushing city and state officials to restore the memorial, said he could support the perimeter decks because it keeps the facade and keeps the bleachers.
Dueling visions over the Natatorium have led to spirited debate — and even bad blood — for about 50 years.
That was apparent Monday after the news conference, when things got testy between Bernstein and Radke. While being interviewed, Bernstein told Radke to “keep moving” as Radke passed by. The two had a heated exchange before Bernstein resumed the interview several paces away.
In May 2013, Caldwell joined then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie in front of the Natatorium to announce their joint plan to replace the dilapidated war memorial with a beach and park area.
Little appears to have changed since then. But Kroning said Monday that “we have made significant … progress.”
“Some of the reasons why it does take so long is because that process is very complicated. And on top of that, when it’s a controversial issue … you get a lot more input in your process, and so that takes time.”
Pressed for more details on what stalled the previous push with Abercrombie more than four years ago, Caldwell replied, “if you were listening to what I said, we haven’t stopped. We haven’t stalled.”
“What has happened is there’s another alternative for people to consider,” he said.
Caldwell hopes construction on the selected plan could begin before his second term through 2020 expires. Otherwise, work on the controversial issue might stall under his successor, he said.
When Caldwell asked Kroning whether that was possible, he hesitated. “If things all line up perfectly, we can get that to happen,” Kroning eventually answered. He added that if the project got the necessary permits expedited, “there’s a chance.”
Bernstein, meanwhile, hasn’t given up on his preferred beach option.
“Hope springs eternal,” he said Monday. “I would love to see progress made. It’s such a contentious issue and there are vested interests that are entrenched.”