Longtime Waikiki resident Charles Magnus got excited when the Rotary Club of Honolulu put up a huge “Coming Soon” sign indicating it was going to build a public park on a derelict city lot at the corner of Aloha Drive and Seaside Avenue.
Magnus, who already had been waiting years for the park that was promised Waikiki residents in 2003, reached into his pocket and gave several hundred dollars to help make the lot green. But two years later it remains a mass of overgrown grass, knee-high weeds, litter and debris. The fence around the lot is bent and rusty, and the black privacy tarps lining it have fallen down. Even the signs indicating that the lot is the property of the government are covered by graffiti.
“I’m probably going to die before this park ever gets done. What exactly does ‘Coming Soon’ mean?” Magnus said. “I’m just sick of all the waiting, the excuses and empty promises. Some of the neighbors that I got to donate to the park aren’t very happy with me now.”
It seemed like the park was finally going to become a reality Wednesday when it came up for its first and only vote before the Honolulu City Council. If Council members had approved the resolution, it would have formalized a 2016 public-private partnership between the city and the Rotary Club of Honolulu to transform the lot into Centennial Park — which would pay homage to Rotary and offer residents and visitors some respite from Waikiki’s density.
The formal partnership is just one step of the approval and permitting process at the city and state levels to get the park built.
But it looks like Magnus and his neighbors are going to have to wait a little longer. After hearing of objections, instead of voting on the measure, the Council referred it to the city’s parks committee for a hearing Tuesday at 9 a.m. at Honolulu Hale.
Interim Council member Mike Formby said none of the concerns that he’s heard “rise to the level of stopping the project” but that all community members deserve a chance to be heard.
Barbara Saromines-Ganne, who lives in a condominium bordering the park, doesn’t like recent project changes, especially the addition of a 10-by-30-foot Hawaiian Electric Co. switching station and a traffic staging area where tour buses and similar vehicles can wait to pick up passengers.
“The park has not only been compromised, it’s been diminished, and they’ve kept everyone in the dark,” said Saromines-Ganne, who is one of three park donors who have asked for money back that they contributed to Rotary for the project.
Waikiki Neighborhood Board member Kathryn Henski said the project already would have been completed if Rotary and the city had not entertained requests from HECO and the Waikiki Transportation Management Association to use parts of the lot for nonpark uses.
“Rotary shouldn’t be building a park that benefits a for-profit company. If this had been done the Rotary way, we would already have been finished,” Henski said. “I’m delighted that the community will have a chance to provide feedback on this project.”
Formby said the goal of the hearing is to bring clarity, maybe even compromise.
“I don’t know what the previous holdups were, but there’s no interest in holding this project up,” he said.
It’s certainly been a long time coming. The city’s promise to put a park on the lot goes back 16 years. But the community push to secure that pledge goes back to 1998, when the late Bill Sweatt first championed turning the derelict lot behind his condominium into a place where his grandchildren could play.
Sweatt, a community activist, is credited with stopping the construction of a high-rise senior living facility, and he led a petition drive that got 700 signatures to get a park built. He and other community park advocates celebrated in 2003 when the city purchased the 33,000-square-foot property for $2.57 million and promised to turn it into the long-awaited park.
But progress stalled when city officials decided to turn the proposed park into a “temporary” staging area and construction base yard for improvement projects throughout Waikiki. At the time of Sweatt’s death in 2011, sewer pipes still occupied the ground where he had one day hoped to see playground equipment and park benches.
“It was very frustrating that the city bought the park, but they didn’t have any money to develop it,” Magnus said. “My neighbor’s son was only 8 when this process started. Now he’s a grown-up.”
After Sweatt’s death Waikiki Neighborhood Board Chairman Bob Finley, state Rep. Tom Brower and others who knew him launched a full-court press to see his vision come true. In response, Mayor Kirk Caldwell agreed to start removing the stored equipment and to explore adding some funds to the city’s capital improvements budget to start the planning phase for the park.
Instead, Caldwell pursued a public-private partnership with Rotary Club of Honolulu. So far, $570,000 has been raised by Rotary for design and construction of what is planned as Centennial Park — which the pending city resolution has valued as a gift worth more than $1.5 million.
The Rotary’s Rob Hale, Centennial Park committee chairman, said the club made some design changes due to escalating costs and to accommodate the switching station and traffic staging area. These changes were detailed last year during a public Rotary update and in newspaper articles, Hale said. Rotary has received mostly positive feedback on the latest plans, with a “very, very small” amount of complaints, he said.
“Basically, the community wants to see this park built,” Hale said. “Those in favor outweigh those that are opposed by a long shot.”
Jim Alberts, HECO senior vice president of business development and strategy, said HECO will be at Tuesday’s meeting to answer questions about the project. Alberts said the utility turned to Rotary only after failing to find another location to replace an aging switching station at the Marine Surf Waikiki. HECO plans to work with Rotary on the design of the station, which Alberts said would benefit the community around the park by ensuring that power is restored more quickly after an outage. The utility will pay the city an annual easement fee for use of the park space, he said.
Hale said HECO has agreed to make $100,000 in city and club contributions toward the park and that its involvement in the project has not delayed the process, as some critics have suggested. Rotary is pursuing needed permits and approvals and hopes to have the park built by summer 2020, he said.
Finley, who lives across from the park, said he doesn’t have objections to HECO’s plan for a switching station or the traffic staging area. His main complaint is that delays have left the lot an eyesore.
“HECO or no HECO, the park should be built as soon as possible,” said Finley. “I just want to see it cleaned up. A lot of people contributed a lot of money, I would hate to see it go to waste.”
Formby said he expects the Honolulu City Council will approve the project after due process is satisfied.
“I won’t prejudge other Council members, but I would dare say that everybody understands the importance of turning an empty lot into a beautiful park,” Formby said.
Park timeline at the corner of Aloha Drive and Seaside Avenue
1997 >> Bill and Helen Sweatt move into the Royal Kuhio condominium in Waikiki.
1998 >> Bill Sweatt sets his sights on a community park in Waikiki.
2000 >> Ernest Nowell seeks exemptions to build a high-rise behind the Royal Kuhio condominium.
2000 >> City Councilman Duke Bainum shepherds a bill designating Nowell’s parcel as a park site.
2001 >> City sets aside $1.5 million to purchase the Aloha Drive lot.
2003 >> Nowell makes a last-ditch effort to save his project. Sweatt helps collect 700 signatures opposing it. City condemns Nowell’s property and purchases it for $2.57 million. City begins using the park as a “temporary” staging area and construction base yard for Waikiki improvement projects.
2011 >> Sweatt dies before seeing his dream of a park completed.
2013 >> City plans to begin park planning and design.
2015 >> Earliest possible date that the city could finish the projects that necessitate its current use of the parcel.
2016 >> Mayor Kirk Caldwell and the Rotary Club of Honolulu announce that they will develop the park under a public-private partnership agreement.
2017 >> Rotary Club of Honolulu begins fundraising in earnest and starts preliminary work.
2018 >> Hawaiian Electric Co. tells the city and the Rotary Club of Honolulu that it wants to put an electrical switching station in the park. Waikiki Transportation Management Association also seeks to put a traffic staging area adjacent to the back side of the park.
2019 >> City Council delays formalizing the public-private partnership to build Centennial Park in a first and final vote and instead schedules a public hearing for Tuesday to allow the public to provide feedback to the city’s parks committee.