The city is making good on the promise made more than a decade ago to turn a derelict lot in the heart of Waikiki into a neighborhood park.
The city and the Rotary Club of Honolulu announced Tuesday that they have reached an agreement that will transform the site, 2251 Aloha Drive, into a gated public park complete with trees, benches, an open area, lighted walkways and an irrigation system.
It will be named Centennial Park in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Rotary Club of Honolulu, which was chartered in 1915, and of the Rotary International Foundation, which was endowed two years later. The park will feature 10 big rocks with three-sided etchings showcasing the history of Waikiki and that of the foundation and the Honolulu nonprofit — Hawaii’s oldest and largest Rotary Club.
“It’s been a long time coming, too long in my mind,” said Mayor Kirk Caldwell. “The good news is that it’s going to happen now.”
In 2003 the city nixed a high-rise planned for the lot and condemned the land for “an open-space park.” The city paid $2.57 million for the 35,480-square-foot property, which is situated one block mauka of Kuhio Avenue and bordered by Aloha Drive, Manukai Street and Seaside and Royal Hawaiian avenues.
Park plans stalled, however, when city officials decided to use the site as a temporary staging area and construction base yard for improvement projects throughout Waikiki.
“This is really welcome news for me and for everyone that has had to look
at this mess,” said Helen Sweatt, whose condominium overlooks the vacant lot, which has been filled with city equipment and overrun with weeds and litter. “My husband worked so hard to get a park. I’m so very excited to hear that this is finally coming to a happy ending.”
Sweatt’s husband, the late William Lee Sweatt, began pushing for a park after moving to Waikiki in 1997. Sweatt is credited with leading a 700-signature petition drive for it. After his death in 2011, community residents mounted another effort to spur the city to follow through on the park.
Waikiki Neighborhood Board member Walter Flood said, “We waited 10 years, maybe even 20 if you count the other ideas that they were talking about before the high-rise.” He added, “It’s been a city dumping ground for more than
10 years, and now it will be transformed into a beautiful new park for neighbors and visitors.”
The park was also a dream of Linda Coble, who lost her husband, retired KHON anchor Kirk Matthews, to cancer earlier this week. Caldwell said Coble, who is a Rotary Club of Honolulu member, approached him six years ago to discuss the parcel’s future.
Michele Nekota, city Parks and Recreation Department director, said the administration has executed many public-private partnerships, but this one is the first that will result in a new park. Nekota said the city will maintain the park, but it will be designed and built using some $440,000 in Rotary funds. In exchange for city sidewalk repairs, Rotary will assist in setting up a tour bus staging area on Manukai Street to cut down on the circling that adds to the neighborhood’s traffic woes.
The city will provide park maintenance and enforcement. Officials believe the park’s gate, which will be locked at night, and its design, which includes short two-seater benches, will make it less appealing to homeless individuals looking for a place to sleep.
“We are building this park for everyone,” Caldwell said. “Because there is a fence that closes at night, police that enforce park closure rules will have an easier time.”
Rick Towill, president of the Rotary Club of Honolulu, said, “Today is the handshake. Now the work begins.”
Towill said the club still has to raise the money for the project and organize regular park cleanups. Among groups offering support are the Honolulu Sunset, Ala Moana, Diamond Head, Waikiki and East Honolulu Rotary clubs.
Garrett Grace, past president of the Rotary Club of Honolulu, said many Rotarians from overseas visit Waikiki. “At every meeting there are always four or five international visitors,” Grace said. “I’m sure they will be excited to hear about our project. Once it opens, I know they will visit. “
Benson said park organizers also plan to rely on the community.
“There are 33,000 residents in Waikiki. If everyone gave $20, we’d have $660,000. We could build a great park for that,” he said.
Caldwell said the city is committed to keeping the space open and green — even though the lot’s estimated value is about
$8 million. “I do believe that we need more open space in Waikiki,” he said.
Helen Sweatt said the park is sorely needed because new Waikiki projects are adding to the density of an already crowded district. Some 33,000 residents live in Waikiki, and some 5 million visitors stay there annually.
“The whole neighborhood, with all the high-rises going up, needs some sunshine,” she said. “I’m very, very happy.”
Waikiki Neighborhood Board member Mark Smith said the park is good news for surrounding property owners. He has a photo from 1938 that shows the lot was empty even then.
“My mother and father, who lived across the street from the property, would have been very happy to hear this news,” Smith said. “Frankly, property owners don’t want an empty lot near them because it’s a big question mark.”
Flood said, “The Kuhio corridor of Waikiki is proud to be the second most populated artery through Waikiki. We’ve got the new International Market Place, the Ritz-Carlton Residences Waikiki Beach, and now we’ll have a park,” he said.