Honolulu City Council member Ann Kobayashi told me that she thinks the new playground proposed by a private group for Ala Moana Beach Park is a done deal.

“It’s going to happen because the mayor wants it,” she said.

I hope that’s not true. Many more voices need to be heard on this important issue and more consideration must be given before the city decides to surrender for development rare urban beach park land in a place already loved and enjoyed by children.

Design and Construction Director Robert Kroning said on a recent Insights show on PBS Hawaii that the city is looking for ways “to activate the park” and make it more inclusive.  With four million visitors a year, Ala Moana Beach Park hardly needs more activation. It is already Oahu’s most active park.

Since the park opened 85 years ago, the park has been a green haven at the edge of the city for working class people and their families.

Kobayashi said that she and others want the children’s playground to be built instead at Kakaako Gateway Parks next to the Children’s Discovery Center where there is plenty of public parking and there is a logical nexus with the popular children’s museum.

“I want Ala Moana to be kept as it was founded with open green space for picnics and parties and relaxation as ‘the people’s park,’” says Kobayashi.

A rendering of the Ala Moana playground proposed by Paani Kakou, a nonprofit formed to build the facility. The site would include six mini zip lines and a water fountain play area. Courtesy: Paani Kakou

There has been concern from the beginning that the mayor’s nine-point plan to renew and renovate Ala Moana Park is actually a drive to transform the people’s park into a playground for the wealthy and their children and grandchildren living in luxury condominiums across the street.

A narrow and insulting narrative has been pitched by supporters of the playground that if you are against the project you are against inclusion of all children, especially children with disabilities, in park activities.

Tiffany Vara, the director of Paani Kakou, the group promising to donate the $3 million for the playground, has said in testimony in an April 23 meeting of the Parks, Community Services and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee if you don’t want the playground “you are standing for continuing exclusion in our community.” 

Acting council member Mike Formby shot back, “I had never heard anyone in the community who had concerns about the playground say they prioritized exclusion and did not value inclusivity.”

Heidi Tsuneyoshi, the City Council parks committee chairwoman, told Vara the concern was not about excluding children but rather seeking the best location for the playground.

Once the city surrenders open green space to any kind of development it is unlikely it will ever be returned to its former state.

Playground Would Accommodate 500 People

The project is proposed for an acre of land where there is currently a grove of trees, four picnic tables and sweeping lawns behind the park’s current L & L BBQ concession.

Vara says the project will remove only one tree and that tree will be transplanted in the park. She says the playground would use just one acre of the 119 acre park.

She says moving it to Kakaako is not an option because of safety issues that continue with a large homeless encampment at the gateway parks.

The idea for a “world class children’s playground” at Ala Moana Park was first revealed by Mayor Kirk Caldwell at a news conference on July 15, 2015.

At that time, the mayor said the public would be allowed to select the location of the playground and type of equipment it would feature.

But that did not happen.  Two years later the mayor announced the location for the playground was already chosen for the public to be on an acre of land mauka of Magic Island.

The structures and overall design for the playground were also already determined by  a group of mothers spearheaded by Alana Kobayashi Pakkala and Vara. 

The  Ala Moana-Kakaako Neighborhood Board passed a resolution in support of the playground. Selected school children were also given a chance to say which features they wanted added to the playground.

Vara and Pakkala have touted their proposed project as world class playground for up to 500 children and adults of all abilities with six mini zip lines, a water fountain play area and a snack bar area, as well an extra set of restrooms with a family restroom featuring a changing station for adults with incontinence problems. Vara is the mother of a daughter with disabilities who died four years ago at age 13.

Without considering 500 more adults and children coming to the playground, the draft environmental impact statement for the mayor’s park improvements says the city already needs to add 243 parking spaces to the park’s existing 948 spaces.

That would be done by taking up additional green space to create perpendicular parking on the mauka side of the park’s road.

Vara says some of the people who would be using the playground are not additional visitors to the park but people already using the park today.

Ala Moana Beach park Lifeguard 1B.
Some critics believe a playground proposed for Ala Moana Beach Park should be developed in a less popular park with more parking. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The four-member board of directors for the playground’s fundraising group, Paani Kakou, is made up of people who have a direct interest in the Park Lane luxury condominium across the street from the playground. The prices listed when the condo opened ranged from $1.2 million for a one bedroom to $10.8 million for a four bedroom.

Paani Kakou directors include Ian MacNaughton, CEO and managing partner of the MacNaughton Group, and Pakkala, CEO of the Kobayashi Group, the companies that developed the Park Lane. The other two directors are Crystal Rose, an attorney who does legal work for the Kobayashi Group and Vara, who with her husband Ray Vara purchased a condominium in the Park Lane in March 2017.

The world class playground would be another amenity the Park Lane could offer to prospective buyers along with its swimming pool, movie theatre, wine storage and beach valet service.

According to Vara, no money has been raised by Paani Kakou in the two years since Caldwell announced the project. According to federal records, the project still lacks nonprofit tax status.

Vara says the group will wait to raise funds until the environmental impact statement is finished and reviewed by the city because it does not want to hold people’s money until the park wins approval.

She says Paani Kakou’s board of directors will be expanded then to reflect the broad volunteer support of the community.

Multiple Permits Required

In earlier news conferences, Caldwell said construction on the playground could begin as early as this year.

But the project still needs a completed EIS review project and building permits from the city’s Department of Design and Construction, as well as the Honolulu City Council’s approval. Final plans for the playground will also need to be reviewed and approved by the Disability and Communications Access Board,  the state agency which insures access to facilities for people with disabilities.

Board executive director Francine Wai says she is waiting to see the final plans. But she has seen the conceptual designs of the proposed project and says the playground is “attractive and accessible.”

But because of the Ala Moana Beach Park location, she has personal concerns separate from the board’s about  “the scale of the project and the environmental blight and the loss of open space at such a well-used community park”.

“It seems to me that there are other city park locations that might offer more parking and less resistance from the community,” Wai said. “I don’t consider this a NIMBY response. I also don’t want to see the project pitched as a godsend to children with disabilities because then there could be a backlash against the children.”

I agree with Wai that worries about the plan are not a NIMBY response. As life on the island becomes more crowded and noisy, parks offer residents rare places for relaxation and tranquility.

Vara says they are considering a second inclusive playground in central or west Oahu. Why not put the first playground there in a child-filled neighborhood rather than take over rare and cherished green space in an already crowded urban park?

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