Community opposition to the city’s recreational plan for Waimanalo Bay Beach Park, also known as Sherwoods, has generated headlines and prompted much public discussion.

Yet, at the same time, a controversial and widely disliked recreational feature proposed for Ala Moana Regional Park by Mayor Kirk Caldwell is quietly advancing.

That’s the so-called “world class playground” for up to 500 children featuring six mini ziplines and a splash pad, a new restroom and a food concession — all of which would be enclosed by a fence. Some of the play features would be accessible to children with disabilities, as is required by law in all newly built playgrounds.

Opponents say the playground should go somewhere other than Ala Moana Park, which can’t spare the open space. Courtesy Paani Kakou

Opponents are urging the city to find another place for the playground, not Ala Moana, the most heavily used park in the state, where open green space has been increasingly covered with structures dedicated to a single use rather than open-ended recreation.

The proposed playground is slated for an acre of open lawns, trees and picnic tables.

Caldwell says the playground will be donated to the city by “a group of mothers” who have promised to raise the $3 million needed to build it.

The group, Paani Kakou, received approval for tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service in August. In its application, the organization stated it would raise no more than $50,000 each year over the next three years.

Tiffany Vara, president of Paani Kakou, did not return calls from Civil Beat asking her to explain how, considering the $50,000-a-year limitation, the group would be able come up with the $3 million to fund the playground.

Paani Kakou is required by federal law to make documents concerning its charity status available to the public. Yet it has refused requests from Civil Beat and from community advocate Natalie Iwasa to see them. The IRS eventually released the documents.

Iwasa says the city should make sure that any nonprofit it does business with complies with the law.

Paani Kakou was formed by four officers, all of whom have direct connections to the ultra-luxury condominium Park Lane Ala Moana, across the street from the proposed playground.

The mayor’s earlier description of them as “a group of mothers” doesn’t seem to fit.

Vara and her husband own a condominium in Park Lane. Alana Kobayashi Pakkala and Ian MacNaughton are executives in the development companies that built Park Lane. And Crystal Rose is an attorney who does legal work for Park Lane’s developers.

So many unpopular plans are vying for attention in Honolulu today, it’s easy to lose track of a project like the Ala Moana playground.

But it is important to keep an eye on it because its backers are aiming to take away an acre of rare public green space at Ala Moana now open to park users for games, picnics, birthday parties and other family events as well as for reflection and relaxation under its grove of mature trees. Once the open space is gone, it likely will be gone forever.

The mayor says it is just one acre out of the park’s 119. But the city parks department says only 85 acres at Ala Moana and Magic Island are actually open space for multiple recreational uses. The rest of the park is covered with roads, parking lots, tennis courts, two large ponds, drainage canals and structures like a canoe halau, a lawn bowling facility and the McCoy Pavilion, as well as food concessions and restrooms.

The city says the area is “inactive” but people use it for all kinds of things. Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat

City Design and Construction Director Robert Kroning calls the area where the mayor wants the playground “inactive” but that isn’t true.

The area is right behind the L&L Hawaiian Barbecue concession across from Magic Island. On park maps, it is Picnic Area 9, part of the park’s Great Lawn.

“On the weekends, it is well used by the public for family gatherings,” Councilman Tommy Waters said. “It is a beautiful grassy area with the trees and a pond beside it.”

Waters, who opposes the playground, says he wants to get together with community groups Malama Moana and Save Ala Moana Beach Park Hui and Paani Kakou to see if an agreement could be reached.

Council member Ann Kobayashi is drafting a resolution to ask the city to look for another site.

Kobayashi says her actions are driven by concerns from the community.

“The playground just does not fit in with what people want,” she said. “It would be closing off part of the park for only a certain portion of users rather than keeping it open and available to everyone.”

A final environmental impact statement was submitted Aug. 23 for the playground and other proposals in the mayor’s master plan for Ala Moana Park.

City parks spokesman Nathan Serota says the city is now waiting to see if an individual or a group will come forward by the Oct. 22 deadline to raise legal objections to the final EIS.

Malama Moana and Save Ala Moana Beach Park Hui, which oppose the playground, said Sunday they’ve decided not to sue and hope instead to garner support from the public and Honolulu City Council members to stop the project as it moves through the permitting process.

Cities across the U.S. are increasing their green space, not reducing it as Mayor Kirk Caldwell proposes to do at Ala Moana.

To move ahead, the playground’s backers still need council approval for a special area management permit, as well as building permits, and council approval for the financial donation they’ve promised to give to the city.

“We do not want the playground to proceed in this area,” Malama Moana’s founder Audrey Lee says. “It would be putting too much structure in that space. We want to keep that area in Ala Moana the calm and peaceful place that it is.”

Malama Moana and Save Ala Moana Beach Park Hui will be holding an informational rally from 9 a.m until noon Oct. 26 at the site where Paani Kakou wants to build the playground.

Sharlene Chun Lum of Save Ala Moana Beach Park Hui says the event is to raise awareness about the project.

Vara did not return calls from Civil Beat asking if there had been any modifications to the original playground plan since it was unveiled by the mayor in December.

I am on the side of the playground opponents. As Honolulu becomes increasingly smothered in concrete and people have fewer public places to relax, I think it is worth fighting to preserve public green space, even an acre of it.

Cities across the U.S. are increasing their green space, not reducing it as Caldwell proposes to do at Ala Moana.

I appreciate the memories shared by 98-year-old Lambert Wai, who was there on July 27, 1934 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated what was then called Moana Park.

Wai says it was touted as being an open space park where all of the residents could go and enjoy a day of fun and games with family.

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