The tourism lockdown, which has emptied Waikiki, has created an opportunity for the state’s most economically important district to begin about a half-dozen construction projects, including shoring up its world-famous beaches.
The state Department of Land and Natural Resources has given Kiewit Construction notice to proceed on a roughly $2 million Royal Hawaiian groin replacement. The Waikiki Beach Special Improvement District Association partnered with the state on that project and is hoping to get rolling on a $2 million project to replace 12,000 cubic square feet of sand at the man-made beach.
An environmental impact statement for a $10 million Waikiki Beach Master Plan also is underway.
The state, which already has begun work on Ala Wai Canal dredging, also has started restoring the canal’s wall, with current work ongoing between McCully Street and Kalakaua Avenue.
City workers will start repaving the intersection at Kalakaua Avenue and Lewers Street on Monday. Work also is ongoing on Centennial Park, a public-private partnership between the city and the Rotary Club of Honolulu.
The tourism collapse that has followed the drop in visitors from reduced travel demand and COVID-19 restrictions has provided an unprecedented chance to make improvements in Waikiki when the district isn’t overflowing with people.
Now is the time
On any given day in Waikiki before COVID-19, there were approximately 88,000 tourists, 28,000 workers and 25,000 residents. Since March 26, when Gov. David Ige imposed a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for trans-Pacific passengers, only 1,690 visitors have come into Oahu, and not all of them have been Waikiki bound.
Mufi Hannemann, Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association president and CEO, said, “It makes a lot of sense to do those projects now (rather than) when things are normal” and streets are crowded with people and traffic. The projects “keep people working, which is great as long as construction workers are social distancing.”
Dolan Eversole,Waikiki Beach management coordinator and part of the University of Hawaii Sea Grant College Program, said, “We’re making lemonade out of lemons.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to proceed with construction in Waikiki without interfering with preexisting activities,” Eversole said. “Hotels and other stakeholders are 100% supportive of expediting projects. They’d like to see them get done before visitors return.”
The state budget passed by the Legislature last year included some $13 million in Waikiki Beach funding — enough to complete a Kuhio Beach erosion control project, kick off the $10 million Waikiki Beach Master Plan and shore up the circa-1927 Royal Hawaiian groin, located between the Waikiki Sheraton and Royal Hawaiian hotels.
Now in its fifth year, the Waikiki Beach Special Improvement District Association has allowed businesses to partner with the city and state to plan for and fund services and improvements to Waikiki Beach. Last year, WBSIDA generated over $1 million from assessments levied on commercial operators in the special tax district bounded by Kapahulu Avenue, Ala Wai Canal and Ala Wai Small Boat Harbor.
WBSIDA helped the state pay for last year’s $568,000 Kuhio Beach erosion control project, which allowed pedestrians to more safely access the water. More than 80 10,000-pound bags of sand were placed to stabilize the beach where the old Waikiki Tavern foundation used to poke through.
Now, it’s finally time to start on the Royal Hawaiian groin, which has been failing for years but is needed to protect structures along the coastline and create the sandy beach that has made Waikiki so famous.
“We cut a $1 million check two weeks ago and gave it to DLNR for the Royal Hawaiian groin,” Eversole said.
A.J. McWhorter, DLNR spokesman, said once the Royal Hawaiian groin project begins it “could be finished quickly, in six weeks, if not sooner, if when it starts, beaches are uncrowded due to COVID-19 social-distancing rules.”
State Sen. Sharon Moriwaki, who represents Waikiki, helped free up the state match for the Royal Hawaiian groin project, which might have had to wait for a fall start because of visitor traffic if not for the current lull.
“It seemed like a good time to start these projects because nobody is around, and they can do a lot more when they don’t have to close the streets and cause congestion,” Moriwaki said. “I advocated, along with other senators, for the governor to release the Waikiki Beach funds. Waikiki is too precious not to plan for its future.”
Plans for more projects
Much is at stake since Waikiki Beach is the epicenter of Oahu’s visitor industry. In 2018, the most recent Waikiki-specific figures available from the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, the island welcomed more than 5.9 million tourists, or about 60% of the state’s total count of nearly 10 million visitors. They accounted for more than $8 billion in visitor spending, or about 46% of the statewide tally of $17.8 billion.
While Waikiki isn’t likely to see such strong economic performance for a while, improvements made now will help with its eventual rebound.
“If we get done what we can now, it allows us to focus on the challenges that we’ll have to address,” Hannemann said. “I’ve heard of some hotels that might move forward on projects. The beach projects are especially important, as they’ve been longstanding concerns from all quarters.”
Eversole said in addition to the Royal Hawaiian groin project, WBSIDA is working with DLNR on another Waikiki Beach sand restoration project — a follow-up to the 2012 restoration that added 25,000 cubic yards of sand.
“If we move quickly, the existing permit allows us to do another replenishment for half the volume,” Eversole said. “It will buy us another three to four years while we work to get a blanket permit that would allow us to do periodic nourishment every five years.”
Eversole said the WBSIDA also has started to plan for another $3 million worth of projects that will emerge from the master plan EIS, which is underway.
Waikiki Neighborhood Board Chairman Robert Finley said he’s glad to see Waikiki Beach projects starting along with other state projects, including dredging and wall repair projects at Ala Wai Canal.
“We’ve been waiting on that groin project for almost a decade. It’s a very dangerous groin right now. Water flows underneath it and I could see a small kid getting sucked under,” Finley said. “I’m also in favor of another sand nourishment. The more sand the better. We need to increase the width of Waikiki Beach to prevent flooding from the king tides and sea-level rise.”
Finley said he’s also thankful to see work beginning on a city street-repaving project, which starts Monday and is expected to run through April 30.
He was especially pleased to see work continuing on Centennial Park, a long-awaited park near his home in the center of Waikiki.
Finley said the community’s desire for the park goes back to 1998, when the late Bill Sweatt first championed transforming the derelict lot behind his Waikiki condominium. The coming park was made possible by a 2016 partnership between the city and the Rotary Club of Honolulu to turn the parcel into an area that would pay homage to the Rotary Club and offer residents and visitors some respite from Waikiki’s density.
Rob Hale, Rotary Park Committee chairman, said completion of the park’s first phase is expected around the beginning of June. Hale said first-phase improvements include grading, building an interior walkway and planting trees and grass.
“I think the community will be very happy to see this done,” Hale said. “The visual aspects of this phase will make a huge difference.”