Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Restore the natatorium in Waikiki

Peter Apo for the Honolulu Advertiser

The Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium is back on the front page. The mayor says he will form a stakeholder group to make recommendations on the fate of the memorial. But the mayor said he would consider demolition during his first campaign, in his first speech as mayor, and reconfirmed that position in this year's State of the City address. Can we expect a stakeholder process he convenes will disagree? The answer is no.

Photo by Jon Radke

The stakeholder consultation is smoke and mirrors; alternatives to restoration were thoroughly studied and rejected years ago. Exhaustive engineering studies in the late 1980s clearly outlined the fiscal and environmental implications of each alternative. Restoration emerged, on all counts, as the preferred course. A comprehensive EIS on full restoration was conducted and more than 15 different permits were secured.

The claim that you can demolish the pool and expand the beach is wrong. Archival photos show that Sans Souci was a rocky shoreline until 1927 when the natatorium was built and began retaining sand. Lose the pool; lose Kaimana Beach.

The claim that you can demolish the pool and retain the restored facade as a shrunken-down memorial is also wrong. The pool deck is vital to the structural integrity of the overall structure. Lose the deck; lose the $4 million facade, bathrooms, and bleachers.

Concerns about water quality are a red herring. The ocean engineering team that designed the highly successful Ko Olina lagoons designed a restored natatorium to allow as many as 10 complete exchanges of water a day, making it as safe as the water on the adjoining beaches.
There is a silty sludge at the bottom of the pool. The restoration plan would encapsulate it. Demolition, far from a cheap alternative to restoration, would require costly abatement lest the muck damage the surrounding reef and compromise the water quality.

There are legal issues. The Waikiki Memorial Natatorium was conceived by the Territorial Legislature in 1921 when it passed Act 15 to honor servicemen from Hawai'i killed in World War I. The state owns the land; the city is authorized to specifically manage the shoreline use as a public memorial and pool. The city does not have the authority to change the use of the shoreline under Act 15 from memorial to beach without a change in state law and a rigorous, expensive shoreline management permitting process.

A 1973 demolition attempt was defeated in a state Supreme Court decision imposing a permanent injunction against demolishing the natatorium (specifically meaning the pool). There's every reason to believe that a new legal challenge would succeed on legal precedent.
And how about the moral, historical, cultural and economic development arguments?

Named to the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of 11 Most Endangered historic sites, the natatorium also represents Hawai'i's solemn commitment to honor its soldiers in perpetuity. What does it say about public policy makers who would dishonor that commitment?
Over the past 10 years, more than $3 billion has been invested in revitalizing Waikiki, much of it to restore a sense of place and reconnect Waikiki to the dignity of its past. The crown jewel of what little is left of historic Waikiki is the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium.

The natatorium has been neglected for more than 25 years, but even in its crumbling state it stands with dignity, filled with memories of the Duke, Johnny Weissmuller, Buster Crabbe, Ford Konno, Dick Cleveland, Bill Woolsey and other greats. Thousands of kama'aina families grew up in its waters. It's tragic that today's children are deprived of such a treasured experience.

Let us do the right thing and stand by our commitment to our war dead with the same full measure they gave to us. Restore the natatorium. Preserve our honor. And preserve Kaimana Beach in the process.

Peter Apo, a former state legislator, Native Hawaiian cultural consultant and past president of Historic Hawai'i, is a board member of the Friends of the Natatorium. He wrote this commentary for The Honolulu Advertiser.