Opponents of a proposed playground at Ala Moana Beach Park said Tuesday they feel ignored by Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration and are urging the city to hear their grievances.

“Can you answer why the administration is so hot and heavy about the playground when everybody I’ve talked to doesn’t like it?” Councilman Tommy Waters asked Honolulu officials at a committee meeting. “Who is pushing this, and why is it so important to you?”

Parks and Recreation Director Michele Nekota said there is public interest in beach park playgrounds but didn’t specify why one is needed at Ala Moana. She later said the city is trying to spruce up underutilized areas.

Honolulu City Council members questioned Design and Construction Director Robert Kroning at a committee meeting July 23. Christina Jedra/Civil Beat

Members of the Parks, Community Services and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee advanced a resolution Tuesday asking the city to prepare a third environmental impact statement that would include a cultural impact assessment.

The move comes amid community backlash to the proposal to clear an acre at Ala Moana for a privately funded playground that would be designed with children with disabilities in mind. Honolulu council members and residents have lamented for months that green space at “the people’s park” should be protected and that an accessible playground might be more appropriate at another location.

Waters questioned the logic of installing a new structure on the beach as climate change threatens Oahu’s shoreline.

“At 3.2-foot sea level rise, the entire park is underwater,” Waters said. “Is that inaccurate?”

“It’s what the models show,” said Design and Construction Director Robert Kroning. 

The city needs to study what happens at one and two feet of sea level rise, Waters said.

In a heated exchange, Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi told Kroning that constituents are frustrated the city hired a New York-based consultant to write a master plan for Ala Moana without public input.

“No local people were asked about it,” she said. “If you just walked around the park and talked to all the users who are there daily, we could’ve saved $1.2 million.” 

Kroning said locals were involved in the plan. He accused Kobayashi of “spreading incorrect information.” 

“The way I get information is from you guys, the administration,” Kobayashi fired back. “I don’t make things up. I think you are making things up about me.”

This rendering, by Paani Kakou, a nonprofit that formed to build the project, shows the vision for Ala Moana Regional Park. Courtesy: Paani Kakou

Several members of the public spoke against the project. Stephanie Han, a writer and educator, said the playground is unnecessary because children thrive in natural open spaces.

“Concrete and gadgets do not foster imagination,” she said.

Ray Madigan testified that the park needs maintenance, not an overhaul, and that opponents are being “steamrolled.”

Brad Frye said the city is misleading residents by claiming “only 1 acre” will be used for the playground. With sidewalks, tennis courts, lifeguard facilities and canoe storage, there is limited green space, he said, and it should be preserved.

Frye openly wondered how the proposed playground benefits the developers who have offered to fund the project through a public-private partnership, the Kobayashi Group and the MacNaughton Group.

“Why is there this insistence by the city that it has to be located at Ala Moana Regional Park?” he asked, suggesting the city study other locations. “Is there any tradeoff to make this large dollar contribution?”

The chief operating officer of the Kobayashi Group, one of the developers of the luxury condos at Park Lane across from Ala Moana, said the project funders have nothing to gain from their planned donation.

“There is no benefit or satisfaction of any requirement to Kobayashi Group or The MacNaughton Group for this playground project,” Alana Kobayashi Pakkala said in an email.

“The playground and facilities will be funded through donations and donated to the City and our companies have no formal or informal interest beyond some of our principals donating their time to work toward Hawaii’s first inclusive playground for all children coming to a reality.”

Tiffany Vara, executive director of Paani Kakou, the nonprofit overseeing the project, was not available for comment Monday.

Ultimately, the city needs to address community concerns before breaking ground, Waters said.

“Once we build it,” he said, “it’s hard to go back.”

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