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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, December 4, 2009

Natatorium deserves to be saved

By Richard Moe

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Tearing down the natatorium would be complex, expensive and both unconscionable and irresponsible.

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The Waikk War Memorial Natatorium, in the shadow of famed Diamond Head, is a long-neglected but nonetheless cherished icon of Hawai'i's past. I first saw this irreplaceable landmark nearly a decade ago and was mightily impressed by it, and I am convinced that Mayor Hannemann's recently announced plan to demolish the natatorium to create a beach will rob the city of Honolulu, the state of Hawai'i and the nation of a significant piece of our shared heritage. The National Trust for Historic Preservation joins a wide-ranging coalition including veterans' groups, Native Hawaiian organizations, recreationists, preservationists, public safety experts and many others in urging the mayor to reconsider this ill-conceived decision.

Dedicated in 1927, the natatorium was conceived as a "living memorial" to Hawai'i residents who served in World War I and a place for the public to enjoy. Generations of Hawai'i residents used the natatorium as a recreational resource. The natatorium kept alive 'aukai, the indigenous Hawaiian pastime of ocean swimming, drawing this tradition into a modern, competitive sport inspired by hometown Olympic champions such as Duke Kahanamoku, Buster Crabbe, Johnny Weissmuller and Ann Curtis. In recognition of its significance, the Waikk War Memorial Natatorium is listed in the National Register of Historic Places; in recognition of its deteriorated condition, it was named one of "America's 11 Most Endangered Places" by the National Trust in 1995.

Hawai'i residents celebrated when Mayor Jeremy Harris appropriated $11 million for restoration of the landmark in the late 1990s. But in 2005, newly elected Mayor Hannemann diverted $6.9 million money specifically designated for the rehabilitation of the natatorium pool to the city's general fund. Since then, his administration has done nothing as the bleachers and other infrastructure supporting the pool continue to crumble. As a consequence, the site has long been off-limits to the public, and an entire generation of Hawai'i residents has been unable to experience the historic memorial except by peering through padlocked gates. Lack of leadership by the city has deprived local residents and visitors alike of meaningful access to a place that tells an important part of Hawai'i's and America's story.

Demolishing this historic treasure would be both morally unconscionable and fiscally irresponsible. Most approvals for the rehabilitation of the pool and bleachers have already been secured. Demolition, on the other hand, will require the city to spend an estimated eight years and lots of tax dollars in further environmental review. To demolish the pool, the city must secure at least two additional permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a process that is sure to be complicated by the potentially harmful environmental consequences to the near-shore reef, sensitive marine life and surf breaks not to mention the loss of the natatorium itself.

Additionally, by publicly stating his intent to demolish the pool prior to conducting the required environmental studies, the mayor assumes that issuance of the necessary permits is a foregone conclusion. This assumption belittles the intent of federal environmental and historic preservation laws, which require an unbiased consideration of alternatives and give priority to options that avoid harmful impacts. Prior to issuing a Section 404 permit under the Clean Water Act, for instance, the Army Corps must weigh benefits of demolition against harm to the public interest. It is far from certain that the agency will rubber-stamp the mayor's plan, especially since it involves destroying a designated historic property.

The city has the opportunity to save a landmark that makes Waik[0x08]k different from any other sand-and-surf tourist destination. Public funds spent on emergency repairs to the natatorium could make it safe for visitation and provide local jobs in the process. Even if the city decides against opening the pool to swimmers, many other possible uses for the site have been suggested that would reaffirm the city's commitment to honor its veterans and Native Hawaiian traditions while providing a unique community resource for future generations.

While there are plenty of other beaches, there is only one natatorium. The mayor should invest in Hawai'i's heritage instead of flattening it.

Richard Moe is president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.