Three decades after the Honolulu City Council unanimously voiced its support for the creation of a historic preservation commission, the city at last is going to get one.

Honolulu, with its rich and diverse cultural history as an international mecca for trade and maritime exploration, has long been the only major tourist destination in America without a historic preservation office.

Mayor Rick Blangiardi and City Council member Esther Kiaaina, the driving forces for the effort, joined together with supporters in downtown Honolulu on Wednesday to announce the creation of the commission. The idea has had widespread popular support but has long faced significant legal and political hurdles.

Boyd-Irwin-Hedemann Estate Queen's Retreat fire
Preservationists were horrified when a building known as the Queen’s Retreat, inspiration to the famous song Aloha Oe, was allowed to fall into disrepair and finally burned down, partially as a result of failed governmental oversight. Courtesy: Merrill Johnston/2019

The nine-member commission will be part of the city’s Department of Planning and Permitting and will consult with agency officials and work to preserve, promote and develop the city’s historic resources. With the assistance of a full-time staff archaeologist, the commissioners will develop an island-wide inventory of historic properties, propose sites for particular preservation initiatives and consult with other city, state and federal agencies in protection efforts.

City leaders chose a symbolic location for the announcement, gathering at a place where different eras of Hawaiian history converge and mingle in a single area. They stood outside the historic century-old Georgian Revival Mission Memorial Building, adjacent to Honolulu Hale. The open-air edifice was built in California Spanish style in 1929 and is across King Street from the 201-year-old Hawaiian Mission House Historic Site and just down the way from iconic Iolani Palace, Queen Liliuokalani’s one-time home.

Blangiardi said he was using mayoral power granted to him under the City Charter, under what is called executive reorganization authority, to submit a draft resolution to the council to create the commission.

He said that he was pleased to be the sponsor of the commission. He said he was a long-time proponent of historic preservation, having grown up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he saw Boston successfully combine promotion of its historic places with vibrant economic development.

But he will not be signing into law Bill 44, the City Council’s measure introduced in July to force the creation of the commission. That bill, sponsored by Kiaaina and Council Chair Tommy Waters, won unanimous approval in November.

Honolulu City Council member Esther Kiaaina speaks to staff before meeting.
Honolulu City Council member Esther Kiaaina pushed hard for the creation of the historic preservation commission. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

City Council members were warned by the city’s corporation counsel that the bill might face legal hurdles because provisions of the City Charter might require a public vote to create a commission.

Though he won’t sign the measure, Blangiardi said in a press release his executive action will “give effect to Bill 44.”

Dozens of people spoke in support of the measure, including community and cultural advocates and authors of books on Hawaiian history.

Jan Becket, co-author of the book, “Pana Oahu,” which documented some 125 pre-contact sites, provided a long list of properties that had been allowed to be destroyed because of inadequate preservation measures, including Kukiokane Heiau in Luluku, torn down to build the H-3 highway, and Nioi Heaiu in Laie, which he described as lost under a sewage treatment plant.

Blangiardi credited Kiaaina’s “grit, vision and manao” for establishing the commission.

Kiaaina likened the effort to “a legislative kabuki dance” that required the cooperation of the City Council, the mayor and the city’s corporation counsel.

Kiaaina said that combining the mayor’s support and the concerted action by the City Council resulted in a “one-two punch for historic preservation.”

The Building Industry Association, the trade association for the construction industry, initially opposed Bill 44, expressing concerns that the commission would slow down development and add to bureaucratic hurdles.

But at the press conference Wednesday, BIA government affairs representative Kanekawaiola Max Lindsey said he supported the creation of the commission, saying that city officials had addressed the concerns of the construction industry and that city officials said duplicative preservation efforts on the state and local level would be streamlined.

In an interview after the event, Lindsey said that city officials had assured builders that the commission would result in a “system that will identify historically sensitive properties” and help avoid surprises that impede projects that are already underway.

Historic preservation supporters gather
Kanekawaiola Max Lindsey, a BIA representative, spoke in support of the commission’s creation. Kirstin Downey/Civil Beat/2022

Consequently, Lindsey, who is Native Hawaiian, said he had personally advocated for the commission to the BIA’s government relations committee.

“Being Hawaiian and having a cultural connection to the land influenced my thinking,” he said.

Most of the United States embraced historic preservation a half century ago. The landmark National Historic Preservation Act passed in 1966, and was amended in 1980 to create the Certified Local Government program to encourage historic preservation on the city and county level. More than 3,000 cities in America, including all the major tourist destinations, have historic preservation offices, which help local officials identify sensitive sites and get federal funding to preserve them.

Kauai, Maui and the Big Island all have their own historic preservation offices.

Oahu’s only governmental historic preservation defense has been the perennially overworked and understaffed State Historic Preservation Division, part of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, whose officials have long acknowledged that the press of their workload did not permit them to provide proactive oversight of historic properties in the state.

That allowed many properties on Oahu, in particular, to get demolished, including locations of Hawaiian burials, or become dangerously dilapidated.

In 1993, the Honolulu City Council unanimously passed an ordinance to create a nine-member historic preservation commission composed of architects, historians, archaeologists and Hawaiian cultural practitioners, to protect and preserve historic sites.

Mayor Frank Fasi opposed the measure and vetoed it. The City Council overrode Fasi’s veto but the effort stalled. A parade of Honolulu mayors also declined to establish it, including Jeremy Harris, Mufi Hanneman, Peter Carlisle and Kirk Caldwell, despite the pleas of historic preservationists and Hawaiian activists.

Blangiardi is the first mayor in the city’s history to support the idea.

The lowest point for the effort came in 2020 during the Caldwell administration, when city officials tried to kill the ordinance that created the commission. Council member Tommy Waters spoke up in support of it, and eventually he and Kiaaina developed the legislation that became Bill 44.

Kiaiana said she pushed for it because she wanted to help solve a long-standing problem for Honolulu.

Cultural consultant Mahealani Cypher was involved in the original drive to get the commission created and has tried to revive it in the intervening years. She said that the mayors opposed it because the construction industry opposed it.

“They didn’t oppose it in public,” she said. “They opposed it with their campaign contributions,” she said.

Then, she said, DPP’s persistent problems became a justification for not establishing it, saying that the roadblocks to construction would only worsen, which she said was itself a “delaying tactic” by opponents.

She said that the building industry has come around because the level of public support for historic preservation has increased.

“Building industry leaders must know there is a growing interest in historic preservation in the community,” she said. “It’s better for them to be inside, reviewing the process, rather than outside, destroying it.”

The commissioners will be volunteers. The city will begin selecting commissioners for the nine available posts immediately, with the expectation that the agency will begin operating early next year and hold its first formal meeting in March. Its annual budget is expected to be about $300,000.

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