When it comes to the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium, neither of Honolulu’s two mayoral candidates fully support the state’s plan to replace the dilapidated structure with a volleyball arena or concert venue.
Since 2009, at the recommendation of a 17-member city task force, the city had been working on a plan to demolish the memorial and create another beach.
But it turns out, according to a recently released chain of internal emails between city and state officials, that Gov. Neil Abercrombie has for months had other ideas for the site. He prefers to convert the long-unused swimming pool into a beach volleyball court and perhaps use the site as a place to hold outdoor performances.
A decades-old heated debate about what to do with the Natatorium — built as a memorial for World War 1 veterans — has left the site in disrepair.
The recent emails revealed not only the state’s plans for the site but also a concerted effort by city and state officials to keep the public from finding out what was up. Media reports on those efforts to hide the truth have pushed the issue even further into the limelight.
Both were asked to explain what they think should be done with the Natatorium.
Rather than siding with the task force or the state, Cayetano proposed finding a compromise between the plans.
“There are good arguments on both sides of the issue,” he said, adding that his position centers on preserving Kaimana Beach as a gathering place for locals.
“The beach there is probably the last beach that we will have for our local residents in Waikiki. Once you take that away, you’re taking away something that can never be put back.”
“I think the governor’s right. I don’t blame him,” he said. “I think he wants to have concerts and volleyball … I don’t see why that can’t happen without building a stadium. That’s the kind of compromise I’m talking about.”
Cayetano said that he intends to talk with Abercrombie to understand why he wants a volleyball court.
Caldwell, on the other hand, said he supports the task force’s decision.
“The task force started, the EIS (environmental impact statement) is in progress, money is being spent,” he said.
The city until recently had been going forward with $1.3 million worth of studies, including the EIS.
He noted the Natatorium’s decrepit state and speculated that a thunderstorm or earthquake could easily tear the structure down.
“Enough talking — it’s time for action,” he said.
The task force plan entails demolishing the pool, moving the arches back, building groins — barriers built into the sea from the beach to prevent erosion — and ultimately creating an additional beach.
The governor’s idea would require the city to rebuild the walls — a project that would cost roughly $30 million, Caldwell said.
“Now, if I were mayor and Governor Abercrombie decided to rescind the executive order, I’d say be my guest — take it back and spend the money,” he said. “But my request would be to fix it, get it back up to where it was … I hope this isn’t another 40 years of political football. It’s just shameful — right in the heart of Waikiki, right at this base of Diamond Head, honoring those who gave their ultimate sacrifice in World War I. We dishonor them every day by talking and not acting.”
Both Cayetano and Caldwell condemned the stealthy decision-making revealed in the emails.
Cayetano said the media’s exposure of the emails would ensure similar procedures don’t happen in the future.
Caldwell criticized the officials for their “behind-the-scenes” approach.
Caldwell and Cayetano also touched on a number of other issues ranging from affordable housing to the commercialization of Oahu’s parks. The rail project was largely absent from the discussion.
Much of the forum centered on policies involving Oahu’s elderly.
The forum was sponsored by the Kokua Council, a local advocacy group that works to empower the elderly. About 60 people, most of them senior citizens, were in attendance.
Both Caldwell and Cayetano stressed they would work to improve Honolulu policies affecting Oahu’s elderly. Cayetano focused on spending on seniors, but Caldwell presented a seven-pronged plan ranging from funding to revamping all the city’s departments to better accommodate Oahu’s aging population.
Cayetano started with an anecdote about his father, who died in 1994 and developed dementia in his final years.
His father’s experience taught Cayetano that senior citizens need more money than what they eventually receive through Social Security and pension benefits, he said.
“It was not enough for him to live, at least feasibly, in Hawaii,” he said. “With each passing month, he needed a higher level of care.”
At the core of the solution, he said, is keeping the cost of living down.
“Money is at the root of these issues,” Cayetano said. “When it comes to political power, they (senior citizens) are way at the bottom.”
He pointed to the “reckless spending policies at the City Hall” as a major obstacle to making the cost of living more affordable for senior citizens.
Caldwell outlined a number of ways he would improve services for the elderly. They include securing direct City and County of Honolulu funding for Oahu’s senior citizens, enhancing pedestrian safety and “reenergizing and refocusing” the city’s Elderly Affairs division.
He also said that, if elected, he would within four months days of becoming mayor organize a summit that would bring together a range of senior-care providers to formulate a plan to help Oahu’s elderly “age in place.”
Caldwell champions the “age in place” approach, which would develop means for senior citizens to age not in care homes but in their own homes, “where they can be healthier, both physically and psychologically.”
But Cayetano criticized the summit, arguing it would achieve little.
“Many of you have been there already … there have been conferences up the ying yang,” Cayetano said. “We don’t need a conference — this is always the escape path for people who don’t have a real plan.”
He noted that too much attention has been given to rail “to the exclusion of other services.”
Cayetano and Caldwell most differed on their stances on Bill 11, the controversial ban on commercial activity in Kailua.
Echoing his comments on the Natatorium, Cayetano argued that Hawaii residents deserve parks and public areas that are spared commercial activity.
Bill 11, he added, doesn’t prohibit tourists from going to Kailua. “But it prohibits the kind of commercial activity that is not conducive to an area like that, which should be kept for the local people.”
Caldwell disagreed, asserting that the ban is a “sledgehammer approach to a unique, special problem” in the Kailua area.
The tourism industry buttresses Hawaii’s economy and sustains everyone, he said.
He proposed a middle-ground approach to the debacle, such as regulating the time, place and manner of commercial activity.
“It’s not us against them — it’s about all of us living on one small island and living better,” he said.