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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Do something with Natatorium

By David Shapiro

The Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium, built in 1927 to honor World War I veterans, has instead become a monument to political obstinacy.

The saltwater pool has been in limbo since 1979, caught between a city administration dedicated to full restoration, a state Health Department determined to shut it down for safety reasons and beach-goers who want to claim the property for their own use.

With no resolution in sight, the once-grand memorial stands as a chained-up eyesore staining one of the world's most famous beaches.

It's long past time to find a middle ground that's respectful of the honored veterans while mindful of modern environmental reality.

Mayor Jeremy Harris persuaded a divided City Council to approve $11 million for full restoration in 1998. He spent $4 million to repair the Natatorium's facade and grandstand.

But restoring the pool has been stymied by environmental lawsuits filed by the Kaimana Beach Coalition, which wants the Natatorium stripped and returned to open beach.

The state shut the pool in 1979 over water quality concerns, and issued new regulations last year requiring extensive lining and water circulation improvements before the pool can be reopened.

The $6.9 million the city has left isn't nearly enough, and private funds have not materialized.

Harris is right that you just don't tear down a memorial to America's fallen war heroes. Nor would it be respectful of their memory to leave only a piece of the façade as a ghostly shell between a parking lot and a patch of beach.

But it's becoming a hopeless cause to try to fit an outdated and prohibitively expensive saltwater pool to modern environmental sensibilities.

The Natatorium was never intended as a static monument. It was built as a grand arena for competitive swimming, a sport that was synonymous with Hawai'i at the time because of Duke Kahanamoku's Olympic glory.

But standards for competitive swimming venues have changed since 1927. It's unlikely that serious events would be held at a restored Natatorium, and it makes little sense to maintain a recreational saltwater pool at the edge of a beach that offers better and cleaner swimming options.

One compromise worth a look is Sen. Fred Hemmings' proposal to fill in the pool and convert the facility to a world-class arena for beach volleyball. He believes it would get heavy recreational use and draw prestigious tournaments.

Hemmings is not without vested interest. The former surfing champion is now in the sports promotion business. Any government support for Hawai'i's beach sports industry would be to his benefit.

But if done right, his proposal would maintain the spirit of the Natatorium as a respectful amphitheater for a modern sport that has become synonymous with Hawai'i.

The Kaimana Beach Coalition would get its beach, and it once suggested volleyball courts as a suitable use of the beach. The group would have to back off of its demand that no commercial events be allowed, an unreasonable position when Waikiki is in serious need of tasteful new visitor attractions.

Beach volleyball in Waikiki dates back nearly a century, and there's already a lot of intense volleyball action on the beachside courts near the Kapahulu Groin.

A well-conceived facility at the Natatorium would get good use by players and spectators alike. If it finds tasteful commercial use and draws occasional professional events that boost Hawai'i's economy and reputation as a venue for beach sports, all the better.

Even if the Hemmings proposal isn't the ultimate answer, it's the kind of thinking that's needed to get this tired old issue on the road to resolution.

David Shapiro can be reached at dave@volcanicash.net.