Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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Editorial: Blaisdell to get needed upgrades

                                The Neal S. Blaisdell Concert Hall, Exhibition Hall and Arena were built in 1964.
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The Neal S. Blaisdell Concert Hall, Exhibition Hall and Arena were built in 1964.

Mid-century modern structures, created between 1945 and 1969, continue to be prized and appreciated world ’round. But there’s little appreciation for aging public facilities created during the last century, if they’re not maintained and upgraded to meet present-day needs.

Without city attention, that’s the category to which the Blaisdell Center complex will devolve. The Neal S. Blaisdell Concert Hall, Exhibition Hall and Arena were built in 1964, nearly 60 years ago, and are observably behind the times. Renovations were made to the Exhibition Hall, administrative building, Galleria and Box Office in 1992, but far too much of the original 1964 infrastructure remains today.

A proposal advanced by previous Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell to completely raze the Arena, Exhibition Hall and parking garage and rebuild the facility to contemporary standards ballooned in cost from $400 million to $773 million while under review — and while rail costs were also rising sky high, weighing on the city’s budget — so the city pivoted to a $43.6 million plan.

To keep the facilities open, safe and usable, the city is now poised to spend that money via its capital improvement budget to renovate the Blaisdell Center. That’s a right-sized spending target, given the many other pressing needs for city funds.

Health, safety and deferred maintenance were rightly given primary importance, keeping costs as low as possible while making prudent and necessary fixes that will allow the complex to remain usable for about 20 more years.

First steps in the renovation began last month, and are expected to be completed within the year for the Hawaii Suites, Exhibition Hall and Arena. Safety concerns demand installation of a new fire sprinkler system; plans also include new telecommunication infrastructure and electrical systems.

Noticeable fixes at and around the Arena include: energy-efficient LED house lighting that, in contrast to the current lights, will reach maximum brightness immediately — essential in case of emergency; walkway lighting upgrades; repair of deteriorated parking areas; and renovations to public restrooms, including added family restrooms. The original 1964 doors for the Arena will also be replaced.

The Blaisdell Concert Hall will receive several deferred maintenance improvements, including repairs to deteriorating concrete, replacement of its roof, new air conditioning cooling towers, fire system and electrical upgrades, and back-of-house stage work. It’s projected to be closed for one full year, beginning in July.

While expensive improvements such as elevators for the Arena or Concert Hall, and improved access to the Concert Hall bathrooms, have been discussed and would be welcome future projects, the city says, both venues meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, and so aren’t part of this “bare minimum” project.

The work will, however, make Arena visits by major touring acts who cart in lighting backdrops and other stage enhancements more attractive, because ceiling safety rails and rigging to run added power cords for lighting and special effects will be improved. Currently, a big show uses more power than anticipated in 1964, and cords need to be run down the floor covered by rubber safety “tents” so patrons can step over them.

With a 20-year timeline to keep Blaisdell Center in use, the city can maximize return on its investment in the facility by maximizing usage — seeking out and adopting creative ideas for drawing more event-goers to the facility — while also planning for the next iteration of the Blaisdell Center. Honolulu deserves a state of the art, world-class facility drawing world-class talent, but time will tell whether city creativity and good fiscal planning can make it happen.

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