The long debate over the future of the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium may finally be over.
The deteriorating facility — opened in 1927 as a monument to Hawaii residents who served during World War I, but closed in 1979 due to disrepair — would be rehabilitated by the city as an operational, open circulation saltwater pool, according to the city’s preferred “perimeter deck” option outlined in the final Environmental Impact Statement released to the public Friday.
If the project goes forward, the Honolulu City Council would need to approve a special use permit and any city funding for it.
The construction price tag is projected at $31.8 million, including contingency, construction management and engineering, according to the three-volume EIS. Cost of operations and maintenance is projected at $967,000 annually for “periodic maintenance, minor repairs, a groundskeeper, lifeguards, utilities and miscellaneous supplies,” the study said. A staff of 15 is projected, including lifeguards.
Funding source remains a question mark. A public-private partnership and/or nonprofit fundraising “to either help develop or sustain the operations of the Natatorium are recognized as a reasonable assumption,” the report said.
The capital cost for the preferred option is anticipated to be less than that of two other, long-discussed options.
Tearing down the bulk of the structure and creating a “war memorial beach” is projected at $35.2 million, including construction of a new parking area and replacement of the Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services Division office, now located in the Natatorium structure. Annual operations and maintenance under that scenario would cost $356,000.
On the other end of the spectrum, restoring the Natatorium’s original closed-pool system is projected at $42.7 million with annual operations and maintenance estimated at $1.13 million.
Caldwell said Saturday that he continues to prefer the beach option because of the need for beach space and “because I think salt-water swimming pools are a thing of the past.” But costs and other factors led to the administration’s decision to make the perimeter deck option the preferred alternative in the final EIS.
He gave no timetable for completing the project, but said he expects his administration will include money for planning and design in the fiscal 2021 budget.
“It’s going to be a long timeline because it’s a very complex process we have to follow, in part because it’s on the Historic Register. The process has to be done very carefully and thoughtfully and I think it’s going to take some time, but I think the process has to begin because, for 50 years, the Natatorium has been decaying because of people’s inability to make decisions — politicians and others,” he said. “It shows great disrespect for those whose names are on the memorial … and its shows disrespect for the people who use this park and celebrate the great outdoors out there.”
The conclusion in the final EIS is not surprising. A draft EIS release in November 2018 stated a preference for the perimeter deck plan at what was then projected to cost $25.6 million.
But it’s a big reversal from Caldwell’s position on the issue in 2013, when he stood with then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie to announce a partnership to develop a public memorial beach. The city intended to tear down the pool, relocate the archway and create a new beach where the crumbling pool and stadium now stand at a cost of $18.4 million in 2015 dollars. Full restoration was then projected to cost $69.4 million.
The 2013 plan was supported by the Kaimana Beach Coalition and criticized by Friends of the Natatorium.
In 2015, the city announced it was holding up the EIS process to consider an option between a full tear-down and complete restoration at the request of the State Historic Preservation Division.
In 2016, the National Trust for Historic Preservation released a plan it commissioned that would replace the swim basin’s seawalls with individual chevrons that would allow seawater to circulate in and out of the pool. A representative for the National Trust said the organization would work with local stakeholders on a fundraising campaign if its plan was accepted.
On Saturday, Maurice “Mo” Radke, president of Friends of the Natatorium, said he was happy that the final EIS was out at the start of Veterans Day weekend, and that he expects lots of discussion about it at Monday’s American Legion sponsored commemoration at 11 a.m.
The Friends group has tried for decades to get the Natatorium restored and Radke noted that funding had even been put aside by the city at one point under former Mayor Jeremy Harris.
Radke said he expects both the Friends and National Trust would help with efforts to raise funds for the project, a job that would be made easier if the city gives stronger indications it is committed to restoration. “We couldn’t cultivate anyone because the (previous) proposed option was demolition,” he said. “Who’s going to participate in the demolition of a war memorial?”
He emphasized, however, “there has to be a mechanism in place to be able to receive funds and figure out a way for the city to use those funds.”
The 2019 plan calls for the pool deck to be reconstructed on support piles that would surround the pool at approximately 4 feet above the water’s surface at low tide and 3 feet at high tide. Because there would be a free flow of water between the ocean and the pool, it doesn’t need to meet state Department of Health swimming pool requirements.
Jim Bickerton, an attorney for the Kaimana Beach Coalition, said there are significant dangers tied to the use of a pile-and-grate system. “They forget that current is intended to flow through the grates,” he said.
“The point is a grate lets the current keep going, a wall bounces the current back. So people end up getting pinned against these bars under water — and (the city’s) response is signage,” Bickerton said. “As a tort lawyer, I can tell you that this is going to be a major liability for the city but just as a citizen, it’s a safety issue. These are people going into the pool because it seems safer than the ocean but it’s more dangerous.”
Bickerton said the final EIS is the first acknowledgment by the city that a public- private partnership is likely going to be needed. “Our biggest concern and fear is that one last little sliver of daylight for the public is going to be closed off again by commercial interests because the city cannot tell us that this will be free, open space 24/7 like a beach park is. They’re going to have to close it off for commercial purposes and as time goes by, it will be used more and more and there will be less and less access and parking for people who just need to get into the ocean.”
Caldwell said he believes the project can become reality either with or without a private partner.
“I think it’s way too early to talk about what a public- private partnership would look like,” he said. “It’s going to take some real vetting, sitting down and talking with stakeholders on all levels — the Council, the executive branch, the neighbors in that community, the historic preservation guys and the people who use the beach.”
Councilman Tommy Waters, whose district includes Waikiki and the Natatorium, said he wants to hear from constituents before weighing in with his opinion. “I have a few questions … especially as it relates to swimmer safety,” he said.
Waters said he’s hoping to hold a hearing on the issue either in the community or at Honolulu Hale. “I’m looking forward to a lively discussion with my community weighing the three options,” he said.