Denby Fawcett: State Tries Again To Demolish Shangri La Swimming Hole - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views.

Swimmers have been left paralyzed after accidents at the popular Diamond Head bathing spot.

On Friday night, Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture and Art invited our Diamond Head neighborhood for a Middle Eastern buffet dinner and tour of the museum.

While I was at the party, I watched young kids at the harbor below jumping into the water off the top of a high fence the museum had erected in 2014 to prevent such risky behavior.

Tobacco heiress Doris Duke willed her Diamond Head home to be turned into the Shangri La Museum after her death in 1993. 

An avid swimmer when she was young, Duke constructed the ocean breakwater fronting her home in 1937 to create a harbor for her two boats and a protected swimming place for herself and her guests.

The state now is requesting permission from the Board of Land and Natural Resources to dismantle the historic breakwater for liability reasons.

Young swimmers climb the fence at the Shangri La boat basin. (Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat/2023)

Young people keep dangerously diving and jumping into the harbor basinʻs often shallow waters. 

This will be the third time such an appeal has been made to BLNR. The board in two separate votes in 2018 rejected a practically identical application from the Doris Duke Foundation, the body that operates the museum 

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources is making the current application because it formally accepted ownership and liability for the harbor improvements and submerged lands in a quitclaim deed from the Doris Duke Foundation in September 2018. That was despite BLNR being advised by staff not to saddle taxpayers with the liability that would come with ownership.

Over the years, young daredevils who love swimming in the harbor have injured themselves seriously by diving headfirst into the shallow former boat basin. Three teenagers in separate diving incidents were rendered quadriplegic. 

Popular University of Hawaii Hawaiian studies professor George Terry Kanalu Young broke his spinal cord and was paralyzed from the neck down at age 15 when he dove headfirst into four feet of water at the harbor in 1969.

He died in 2008 from complications from his paralysis.

In 1993, Fredman Corpuz, then 15 years old, was rendered a quadriplegic after injuries from his dive into the harbor.

A man dives into the former boat basin fronting the Shangri La mansion. Taken during a DNLR site visit July 2020. (DNLR)

In 2011, Alan Kepoʻomaikalani Machado-Avilla, who was 17 years old, broke his neck diving head first into the shallow water. Machado-Avilla was paralyzed for life.  

The Doris Duke Foundation settled lawsuits for negligence from Corpuz and Machado-Avilla for undisclosed amounts believed to be millions of dollars.

Attorney David Louie defended the foundation against the lawsuit by Fredman Corpuz in 1993.  Louie later became the Hawaii Attorney General in 2011-2014.

He said in a phone interview Sunday the area where the basin is has to be made safer. 

“It is a no brainer. People do risky things. The museum has photos over the years to prove it. It has become a basic safety issue. The real problem is there will always be an enterprising lawyer wanting to sue in behalf of a terribly injured person. When people get hurt they want to blame someone. And there will always be juries wondering what was so hard about trying to make a place safer.”

Louie is retained now as an attorney for the Doris Duke Foundation to provide legal advice on safety issues and address legal points raised by opponents seeking to stop the state from dismantling the breakwater. 

About 50 to 130 people come to the harbor basin each day with more on the weekends. According to the museum, many of the swimmers have been seen climbing the fence to fling themselves into the water.

“It is only a matter of time before there’s another life-threatening injury at the basin. We are completely supportive of the stateʻs effort to provide needed safety enhancements and restore the shoreline to its original and natural state,” said Lea Major in a phone interview Saturday. Major is the museum’s deputy director.

She was a staff member in 2014 when the Doris Duke foundation waged a safety campaign to prevent injuries by erecting multiple warning signs and installing the $160,000 fence which kids now clamber up for even higher jumping. And hiring security guards, which she said the jumpers either verbally abused or ignored.

Photo taken in 1937 showing the coast before the shoreline was altered with breakwaters and the swimming area.
(Doris Duke Photograph Collection, DDCF Historical Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.)

In 2016, the foundation tried to get state permission to demolish the huge breakwater that created the swimming hole. The foundation proposed returning the area to its natural coastal configuration.

But the Board of Land and Natural Resources in 2018 in two separate votes denied the request because of strong opposition from swimmers, surfers, fishermen and other recreational users who have been coming to the harbor/swimming hole for almost a century. And also, it had concerns about the impact a massive shoreline modification project might have on the ocean environment.

The Waialae Kahala Neighborhood Board adopted resolutions in 2018 and 2021 to oppose the destruction of the harbor basin. Members are preparing now to speak out against the latest application.

“This has been a valuable and enjoyable recreational resource for swimmers and surfers and all residents for years. Why take it down now? It doesn’t make sense. There are more inexpensive ways to curtail bad behavior such as putting barbed wire at the top of the fences and hiring more security guards,” said chairman Richard Turbin.

Critics of the demolition are upset that the DLNR is continuing the quest for demolition when the foundation asking to do the same thing was turned down by the board twice in the last five years.

On the left, a view of Shangri La with the intact breakwater taken in May 2015. On the right, a rendering of what the breakwater might look like if reduced in size as requested by the state. Rendering courtesy of the Doris Duke Foundation. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015)

“It sets a terrible precedent for a state department to keep coming back with the same application that has been rejected twice before by its board and hoping new board members will reverse their predecessors’ well thought out decisions. It results in no finality,” says Leigh Wai Doo, an attorney and former Honolulu City Council Member for the Diamond Head area.

Doo says the state’s application has many shortcomings including its lack of a full environmental impact statement when the demolition of the breakwater and movement of large rocks in the basin will have an enormous impact the on the existing shoreline.

“The state will be creating new conditions on the shoreline that could make it even more dangerous to swimmers than it was before. It will generate new liability for the state as the agent of change to an environment that has been settled for nearly 90 years,” said Doo.

He says the state’s continuing push for demolition is a drastic solution to a safety problem that would be solved by the state working with the community members eager to save the place they have enjoyed for all their lives.

“People are dangerously jumping off the Kapahulu groin into shallow water every weekend yet the state does not rush to demolish the groin.”

William Saunders, an attorney and Black Point resident, who has lived near Shangri La for 54 years, also contends the area will be more dangerous if the breakwater is dismantled.

“If that protective western breakwater wall was removed entirely, anyone standing or swimming at that end of the basin would be subject to the full force of the ocean surge and would be unable to withstand its push and pull. Despite their best efforts, they would not be able to avoid serious injury,” he wrote in testimony to oppose this latest application from the state. 

In 2021 after assuming ownership, the state made its first attempt to get permission from the BLNR to demolish the breakwater and take the breakwater area back to what it was before Duke built the harbor.

Under the proposal, the seawall/public walkway would be retained as well as the Koko Head breakwater.
(Doris Duke Foundation)

In the application it said, “The state now owns the submerged lands and improvements on the mauka side of the seawall. Injuries continue to occur in the former boat basin area which in turn creates a large liability for the state.”

But the state withdrew its application to the Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands when it was unable to get a key document it needed for its submission.

The state declined to answer questions from Civil Beat on why it is coming back now to request permission to proceed with this demolition project when the BLNR has two times before denied  the same request from the Doris Duke Foundation.

“Our policy is not to comment on pending BLNR decisions/briefings prior to board meetings and potential decision making. It’s expected this issue will come before the board soon, so please check agendas and submittals online for more information,” emailed Dan Denison, spokesman for the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

If the state gets approval this time to demolish the breakwater, the Doris Duke Foundation has offered to pitch in $1 million to help underwrite the expense. The cost for the demolition and coastal restoration project is estimated in the submission to be about $2.5 million.

But critics say that price estimate was already too low when it was written in the original application. They estimate today it could cost up to three times that amount.

Doo says “If the breakwater is taken down, it will be gone forever. It would be difficult to build such a massive lava rock structure today. It is a unique gem in the history of Hawaii.“

But attorney Louie says when Doris Duke built her personal harbor it was a different time and place in history; before social media began to entice people to do crazy, risky things for their photo postings. 

“This is why it is necessary to do everything possible to make it safe, “ he said.

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views.

Latest Comments (0)

It's more than entertaining to me that the state needs to simply address the root cause of concern here and it's not the breakwater. The ocean and land are our host, people elect to do stupid and dangerous things, no matter how forewarned of the dangers. Fools dive off spitting caves and China walls daily, stand over the blowhole and as mentioned dive off Kapahulu groin to name just a few. What the state needs to do is clarify, through a supreme court ruling, that the state will not be held hostage by idiots and lawyers looking to make a buck on taxpayers backs. Signage says no jumping, you jump, get hurt or killed, sorry that's on you. Back when this breakwater was constructed there was no environmental impact survey needed. They probably blasted out the rock and reef to create the breakwater, something most would be shocked to hear today. I've seen kids bring a 8ft ladder down there to jump off of, so if you really want to spend money on safety, add rocks around the pier area, so you can't jump directly in and leave the breakwater as is.

wailani1961 · 6 months ago

There is no reason for this to demolition and disruption to the now established shoreline to be approved. No environmental impact study. Same proposal sent twice in both previously rejected (if true, I’m only questioning this because that seems absurd).If it does pass this represents what society is fed up with… another rich institution paying to play with officials. Why else would be approved this time around. Insulting to the states previous objections or just sheer audacity.

Lolo_lokahi · 6 months ago

Does the State have millions of dollars to tear it down? All these years and still no State corrections to make it safe? The State need to focus on the real problem at hand first.

kealoha1938 · 6 months ago

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