Mayor Kirk Caldwell has been adamant that a playground belongs in what is now green space at Ala Moana Regional Park, but the decision is not his alone.

The Honolulu City Council would need to accept the “gift” of the playground from its private donors and approve a Special Management Area permit

In other words, the project cannot go forward without the council’s blessing. And if a vote last week is any indication, it has a tough road ahead.

No one is against the playground,” said Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi. “It’s just the location.” 

Outgoing Honolulu City Council Chair Ann Kobayashi.
Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi said the city should protect the green space at Ala Moana and put the playground near the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center in Kakaako. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Council members voted 7-0 to request that Caldwell’s administration find alternate sites in Kakaako for the playground that is designed to be accessible to children of all physical abilities. The Kobayashi-sponsored Resolution 19-263 was supported by council members Carol Fukunaga, Kymberly Pine and Tommy Waters.

Three others seen as allies of the mayor – Brandon Elefante, Joey Manahan and Ron Menor – voted affirmatively but “with reservations” to relocate the playground plans to Kakaako.

Two members were absent from the vote: Heidi Tsuneyoshi, who opposes the playground at Ala Moana, and Chairman Ikaika Anderson.

Last week’s vote echoes the outcome of a resolution passed unanimously in August. Resolution 19-160 asked Caldwell’s administration to prepare a third environmental impact statement for the project, a move cheered by project opponents because they felt their voices weren’t heard in earlier impact studies.

The measure got nine ayes including Elefante, Manahan and Menor, who all voted with reservations.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell announces lawsuit against large petroleum companies seeking damages for climate change at Waikiki Beach today.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell can often count on Councilmen Joey Manahan (left of the mayor) and Ron Menor (on his right). Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A City Council measure needs five votes to pass. Based on the members’ voting histories, the playground may lack the support to proceed at Ala Moana.

But Kobayashi said nothing is definite at this point.

“We just have to see how much pressure the mayor puts on his people,” Kobayashi said.  

Caldwell has called opponents of the playground “heartless” and “cruel.” Through a spokesman, he declined to discuss his level of optimism that he has the votes needed to make the playground happen.

“The mayor is not speculating on future City Council action,” said Andrew Pereira, Caldwell’s communications director.

Besides the mayor, council members also have to answer to constituents – who have testified by the dozens in opposition to the Ala Moana location – and to campaign donors. Civil Beat columnist Ian Lind found that board members of Paani Kakou, the nonprofit trying to donate the playground, and their spouses have donated thousands of dollars to the political campaigns of Caldwell, Pine, Menor, Waters, Kobayashi and Anderson.

Asked on Thursday for an interview, Anderson said through a spokesperson that he is “unavailable to speak with Civil Beat.”

Paani Kakou Director Tiffany Vara said in a statement that the group is focused on making the project happen.

“Although we are not in a position to hypothesize about how any future City Council vote may go, we are hopeful that they will consider in their discussions and votes the thousands of children who currently do not have a playground designed for their needs, and the many local families who cannot use Ala Moana Regional Park with the current accommodations,” she said.

In a statement, Pine left open the possibility that the playground could be built at Ala Moana. She said the project should not proceed at Ala Moana “until sincere discussions are had with all stakeholders involved.”

“I do not know where this playground will ultimately be built, but it must be decided by people on both sides of the issue and with the best interests of the children,” she said.

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