The proposal to build a privately funded children’s playground in Ala Moana Regional Park has been criticized by opponents as a playground for the wealthy who live in nearby luxury homes.

Even though the $3 million facility — should it be built — will be open for all families and eventually turned over to the Department of Parks and Recreation, to some it is the very symbol of the power of political influence.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell denies that that is the case. He calls the project an “inclusive playground” that is “a gift to the city.”

But this gift is simply not a good fit for Ala Moana, which since its inception nearly 90 years ago was intended to be a “people’s park.” Caldwell himself uses the term, as he did in July when he announced a much-needed $1 million repaving of Ala Moana Park Drive.

“Throughout my term, I have been dedicated to improving our aging park facilities and roadways,” he said. “We hope this project compliments the other improvements that have already been completed at the ‘People’s Park,’ and makes this urban jewel even more inviting for the people of Oahu.”

Ala Moana Beach park with towering coconut trees.

Ala Moana Regional Park is truly “the people’s park.” A proposed children’s playground just doesn’t belong there.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

To understand why the playground — which is planned to be built on 1 acre on the mauka side of L&L Hawaiian Barbecue concession stand across from Magic Island — is unsuitable for Ala Moana, it’s useful to know a little history.

As detailed in a paper prepared for the city in 1987, there has long been a tension over what to do with Ala Moana (Hawaiian for “ocean street”). There were many bad ideas over the decades that fortunately never materialized.

While it was created during the Depression and was always intended to be a park for all people — the portals on the Waikiki entrance of the park were built with federal relief money and dedicated by FDR himself — its development was guided by The Outdoor Circle.

The paper’s author, Robert Weyeneth, describes the circle as “an organization of generally affluent women, many the wives of leading business and political figures … of the day.” Louise Dillingham, wife of industrialist Walter Dillingham, was the circle’s president and an outspoken proponent for the park.

The nonprofit Paani Kakou wants to build a 1 acre playground in Ala Moana Regional Park.

Courtesy of Paani Kakou

“Through the activities of Louise Dillingham it is clear that the issue of civic beautification linked the socially prominent and the politically powerful,” says Weyeneth.

Private donations led to the planting of 600 coconut palms, 100 banyan trees and five “hau lanai” trees. A wealthy businessman, Charles Lester McCoy, was also intimately involved in Ala Moana’s creation and is called the “virtual founder” of Honolulu’s modern park system. Ala Moana’s McCoy Pavillon (whose auditorium is soon to get a new AC system) was named for him.

At one time or another there were plans for an aquarium and a 4,000-seat outdoor auditorium at Ala Moana. Prior to the 1950s Ala Moana was used primarily for fishing and other outdoor activities but not swimming, as there was no beach.

The peninsula that became Magic Island in the 1970s was originally envisioned as an actual island and as an extension to Waikiki for hotels. Heated debate in the 1960s resulted in Magic Island being set aside exclusively for recreation.

A screen shot from the final environmental impact statement on Ala Moana Regional Park and Magic Island improvements (August 2019) underscores its historic significance in Honolulu history.

During the energy crisis of the 1970s, the master plan for Ala Moana called for evicting cars, as it was believed that cars would eventually vanish from the American scene. By the 1980s the focus was on historic preservation and the “integrity and significance” of the park’s landscape, design and architectural features.

And yet, there was also discussion about carving the park up into hundreds of residential lots, making it the site of a convention center and even an amusement park on Magic Island complete with an artificial volcano.

“Whether the goals are laudable or not, the history of urban parks suggests that planners experience enormous difficulty imposing designs that do not enjoy popular support,” wrote Weyeneth.

Which brings us to the children’s playground.

Paani Kakou, the nonprofit behind the facility, notes that it will be accessible for children with disabilities. That is a compelling purpose, but it is overshadowed by the reality of the playground having zip lines and splash pads. The artist rendering of the playground makes it look like a mini-golf course with blue putting greens.

The Honolulu City Council needs to reject the gift of the playground, as it is allowed to do. Council members are already on record urging that the playground be built elsewhere because its current planned location “would change the local character” of Ala Moana.

Instead, the city should focus on addressing the park’s revitalization — something that the mayor and council already support.

Another screen shot from the final EIS on Ala Moana Regional Park and Magic Island improvements (August 2019) shows why it is such a popular place and deserves upkeep.

The final environmental impact statement for Ala Moana and Magic Island — the same document that calls for the children’s playground — identifies more than a dozen priorities including sand replenishment and long‐term beach nourishment, improving the edges and paths around the Hawaiian Pond and Japanese Pond, repairing drainage canal walls, reconfiguring and expanding the Magic Island parking lot, and upgrading the existing canoe launch ramp and crossing from the Canoe Halau.

There is even a proposal for a dog park near Kewalo Basin, which is a good idea, too.

In spite of its sometimes shabby appearance, there is a reason that Ala Moana Regional Park is the most heavily trafficked park on Oahu, home to the Fourth of July fireworks show, the Lantern Floating Festival, the Greek Festival and Dragon Boat Racing. There are more than 1,000 trees and 20 bird species that call Ala Moana home.

Caldwell should not get his playground. But he can take solace and gratification that his administration has done and continues to do a lot to make things better at Ala Moana, such as the renovations to bathhouses completed in September. It’s part of his Kakou for Parks initiative that has done work to 160 different parks across Oahu.

“After decades of neglect this administration is focused on improving the basic infrastructure at Ala Moana and this will be a tremendous benefit to the local residents who visit this treasured park,” the mayor said at the time.

Agreed.

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