The appointments are all volunteers and will still need to be confirmed by council.

A blue-ribbon panel of cultural historians, architects and archaeologists is being convened to serve as Honolulu’s first historic preservation commission.

More than 30 years after the Honolulu City Council unanimously passed legislation to create the historic preservation board, Mayor Rick Blangiardi has become the first mayor to name commissioners to the panel, which will create an inventory of Oahu’s historic sites and seek to protect them.

The nine-member panel includes many well-known names, including Kehaunani Abad, Mahealani Cypher, Richard Douglas Davis, Thomas Dye, Hailama V. K. K. Farden, M. Mehanaokala Hind, Nanea Lo, Glenn E. Mason and Kai E. White.

Boyd-Irwin-Hedemann Estate Queen's Retreat fire
The Boyd-Irwin-Hedemann Estate, also known as the Queen’s Retreat, was covered by graffiti, abandoned and burned down in June. (Courtesy: Merrill Johnston/2019)

All have deep roots in Hawaii. Four are cultural historians, two are architects who have specialized in historic preservation, two are archaeologists and one is an architectural historian. Cypher, a life-long advocate for historic preservation, is an expert on Hawaii’s ancient sites; Farden is president of the Hawaiian Historical Society; Dye, who holds a doctorate from Yale University, teaches archaeology at the University of Hawaii.

Alan Downer, the state’s historic preservation administrator, applauded the commission’s creation, calling it a “very positive step” for Honolulu.

Downer said he was impressed by the commission’s makeup.

“They are no lightweights,” he said in an interview. “They are all accomplished professionals who have done historic preservation work, in some cases for decades.”

Activists on Oahu who support historic preservation were also thrilled to learn the names of those who had been selected for the commission.

“Great news!,” said Chinatown historic preservation supporter Christine Trecker. “For too long real estate interests and unions have had an outsized effect on Oahu development decisions. The scales have tipped so far in that direction, many of us have become disillusioned about being able to protect and preserve Oahu’s remaining historic and cultural treasures. I am so pleased that the Oahu Historic Preservation Commission will soon embark on its exceedingly important work.”

In a statement, Mayor Blangiardi said he was pleased that such “exceptional candidates … stepped forward to take on this responsibility.”

The commissioners, who will serve staggered terms, will need to be confirmed by the city council. They are all volunteers and will not be paid for their work. They will be supported by a small staff, including a trained archaeologist, and will be housed within the city’s Department of Planning and Permitting.

Most large cities in America appointed historic preservation commissions decades ago. By last year, Honolulu was the only large destination city in America without a historic preservation commission. Maui, Kauai and Hawaii Island have long had their own historic preservation boards.

State Historic Preservation adminstrator Alan Downer.
State Historic Preservation administrator Alan Downer said the new appointments were a very positive step for Oahu. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Historic preservation on Oahu was instead left to the perennially overworked and understaffed State Historic Preservation Division, which provides oversight statewide on thousands of local, state and federal projects. That has led to conflicts between the state agency and local planning officials, Downer said, noting that the city’s department of planning and permitting also has wrestled with what he called a “staggering workload.”

That means that it has been difficult for anyone to engage in what Downer called “proactive preservation work.”

The addition of specialized commission staff should prove beneficial to city officials and help them move projects along more expeditiously, he said.

“Having this expertise available will be valuable to them,” Downer said.

City and state historic preservation officials have said they would seek together to effectively prevent unnecessary delays for projects that pose no historic preservation concerns.

Commission’s Long Political Path

Honolulu’s historic preservation commission has had a tortured political history.

In 1993, amid widespread public concern that many of the city’s iconic buildings and sites were at risk of destruction, the Honolulu City Council unanimously passed an ordinance to establish the historic preservation commission.

Real estate developers didn’t like the idea and said it would inhibit construction.

Mayor Frank Fasi vetoed the measure and when the council overrode his veto, Fasi sued to block establishment of the commission. Fasi’s managing director Jeremy Harris shared Fasi’s opinion and also declined to establish the commission when he became mayor, as did subsequent mayors, including Mufi Hanneman, Peter Carlisle and Kirk Caldwell. They ignored the existing law and turned down numerous entreaties over the years by concerned citizen groups. The measure hung in limbo.

During those years, a number of historic sites on Oahu were bulldozed or allowed to fall into ruins. Heiaus have been destroyed; burial sites have been desecrated. Most recently, despite years of warnings by historic preservationists, a building known as the Queen’s Retreat, a property that had inspired the song Aloha Oe, was allowed to fall into disrepair and burned down last year.

Boyd-Irwin-Hedemann Estate Queen's Retreat fire
A watercolor of the house in its heyday by Carter Blank, painted in 1991. Historic preservationists begged for the property to be protected. (Courtesy: Drudi Johnston)

The low point for historic preservation came in March 2020, when Kathy Sokugawa, the acting director of the Department of Planning and Permitting during the Caldwell administration, urged the city council to kill the ordinance that created the commission. City council member Ron Menor, chair of the city’s zoning, planning and housing committee, agreed publicly and said it was unnecessary.

At the next council meeting, however, council member Tommy Waters recommended that what he called “an important commission” be retained in hopes that a future mayor would see things differently and staff the commission. Menor dropped his effort.

Blangiardi took office in January 2021.

Council member Esther Kiaaina took the issue on and, in July, she introduced new city legislation, Bill 44, to amend and advance the historic preservation commission. In November, Blangiardi announced he would use mayoral power granted to him under the city charter to propose a measure that would build on the original legislation that had been passed.

At a press conference then, Blangiardi said he viewed historic preservation differently than his predecessors because he was raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he saw Boston successfully combine promotion of its historic places with prosperous economic development.

“There’s been a change in the way the public is looking at embracing historic preservation”

Council member Esther Kiaaina

In an interview Wednesday, Kiaaina said she had “committed herself” to the effort and is “so excited” it has gone forward.

She said that the commission came together as a result of a “collaborative effort” between the city council and city administrators. She also said she had seen a new willingness from the building industry to think constructively about how to protect important sites and encourage construction as well.

“There’s been a change in the way the public is looking at embracing historic preservation, not just protecting what we hold dear but also helping to address the complexities of the development process,” she said. “This will help us seek the right balance within the Department of Planning and Permitting and the State Historic Preservation Division.”

Diamond Head resident and historic preservation advocate Michelle Matson credited the creation of the board to the change in leadership at Honolulu Hale.

“There has been a vital need for the Oahu Historic Preservation Commission over several decades, and much has been lost over that time,” she wrote in an email. “Now we have a mayor who has taken this responsibility seriously as a legacy for future generations,” Matson said, adding that Kiaaina and Waters had played lead roles in pressing for the commission to be established.

“Kudos to Kiaaina and Waters for seeing this through,” she said.

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