The new commission will need to stand up to developers and other powerful interests.

The Oahu Historic Preservation Commission, the city’s newest oversight board, is going to be more muscular and better staffed than originally envisioned, if City Council members Tommy Waters and Esther Kiaaina have their way.

Last month, more than 30 years after the Honolulu City Council unanimously passed legislation to create the historic preservation board, Mayor Rick Blangiardi appointed the commissioners to the panel, which will create an inventory of Oahu’s historic sites and seek to protect them.

Council Chair Waters said it was important to him that the commission be forceful and effective, urging them to move quickly toward establishing an inventory of valued sites to be protected from development. This is not a “mail-in job,” and it will be a “lot of work,” he told the nominees.

“We want to identify these sites and preserve them forever because we have lost a lot of sites,” he said, urging them to work with the State Historic Preservation Division to share information and resources.

He said they would need to stand up against “multinational corporations” that buy land and embark on callous development plans.

Boyd-Irwin-Hedemann Estate Queen's Retreat fire
The Boyd-Irwin-Hedemann Estate, known as the Queen’s Retreat, is one of the historic sites lost to neglect.
(Courtesy: Merrill Johnston/2019)

A confirmation hearing Thursday over the nine members appointed by the mayor provided an opportunity for council members to ask about how the board was being set up by the city.

The deliberations occurred during a meeting of the City Council’s planning and the economy committee, which is chaired by Kiaaina. In July, Kiaaina introduced Bill 44, designed to supplant the original 1993 legislation that had never been put into action. Blangiardi responded by taking steps to establish the original commission and nominated the nine commissioners.

The commissioners need to be confirmed by the full council before their deliberations can begin.

Waters used the occasion to press for information from city officials about what staff support the new commission would receive. Dawn Apuna, director of the city’s department of planning and permitting, indicated the commission would be staffed by a planner with archaeological training and a clerical support worker.

Waters said that was inadequate, noting that the police commission has an eight-member support staff.

“They are important, so are these guys,” he said.

Kaena Mokaena Heiau Fence
Commission nominee Richard D. Davis was criticized for not being well informed about archaeological sites.
(Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2022)

Waters said he would reach out to Radiant Cordero, chair of the city’s budget committee, to add more workers to the roster, saying that he thought the historic preservation commission should have as many as the police commission.

One of the nine proposed members of the new commission, a retired historic preservation expert who formerly worked as a civilian employee of the U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii, came under scrutiny over whether he would be a stalwart enough defender of ancient Hawaiian sites.

Kiaaina and Waters both directed firm questions toward nominee Richard Davis, after three of his former co-workers presented written testimony to the council calling him a poor choice because he was not well informed about Hawaiian archaeology or had been a bad colleague to them.

“He was disrespectful and dismissive to me as a Native Hawaiian,” wrote architectural historian Monica Bacon, who said she had worked with him when she was an employee of the University of Hawaii and he was a federal cultural resources manager.

Davis protested those characterizations, saying he was puzzled by the charges.

“I don’t recognize myself in the descriptions there,” he told council members.

Davis received generous praise from other commenters, including William Chapman, dean of the University of Hawaii School of Architecture and vice chair of the Hawaii Historic Places Review Board, who said that Davis would bring valuable expertise because of his experience as director of the Guam Historic Preservation Office and his work with the U.S. military.

Honolulu City Councilwoman Esther Kiaaina said she is “overjoyed” with the progress the historic commission is making. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015)

“Richard is an undisputed expert on historic preservation laws and procedures,” Chapman wrote. “Without reservation, I give him my strongest — unreserved — recommendation.”

At the hearing, Kiaaina asked for the opinion of cultural historian Mahealani Cypher, another commission nominee, about Davis’ nomination. Cypher said that although she didn’t know Davis personally, she thought he would bring valuable institutional knowledge to the panel.

“Mr. Davis’s history and expertise will be invaluable to the commission,” Cypher told the council members. Cypher has been a vocal proponent and advocate of historic preservation in Honolulu since before the passage of the original bill.

All nine nominees were subsequently approved by the committee, and the entire contingent moved forward as a group toward an expected easy confirmation.

Davis did not respond to requests for comment.

Waters and Kiaaina are both of Native Hawaiian descent. Kiaaina noted that five of the nine commissioners who have been appointed are Native Hawaiian.

In an interview, Kiaaina said she is pleased with the progress being made toward establishing the historic preservation commission and that city officials have been helpful and collaborative. She said that within minutes after the council meeting ended, she encountered key administration players conferring over how to set things up, taking into account what the council members had said.

“It shows me the excitement and sincerity on behalf of the administration and all the career staff at the Department of Planning and Permitting,” she said. “I’m overjoyed.”

Honolulu has for decades been the only major destination city in America without a historic preservation commission protecting its treasured sites, and in the past 50 years many ancient sites on the island have been bulldozed, ransacked or been allowed to crumble into decrepitude.

All the mayors between Frank Fasi and Kirk Caldwell declined to appoint commissioners to the panel, allowing its existence to fall into limbo while numerous historic sites were destroyed by real estate developers or building contractors.

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