Afterthoughts: Treading Water

They say that haste makes waste, but inertia can trash the place, too. Case in point? The Waikiki Natatorium.

Photo: linny Morris

I was once lucky enough to travel to Shanghai, home to one of the most futuristic, creative skylines in the world. It’s glowing, it’s flashing, it’s got bulbous oddities; it has the tallest things you’ve ever laid eyes on, all newly constructed. 

Warp-speed progress had, our tour guide noted, transformed the neighborhood she’d grown up in from provincial rice paddies to a teeming business district—and she was only 21 years old. The pace of change in Shanghai is fueled not only by cheap labor, but by unfettered ambition. For better or worse, communist leaders can act quickly, and the powers that be in China aren’t shy about displacing huge numbers of people to get a job done.

On the other end of the cityscape spectrum, there’s Honolulu’s three-decades-long debate over what to do with one of its landmarks, the Waikiki War Memorial Natatorium. The memorial was closed in 1979, so the city and state have had a mere 30 years to come to a decision on what to do with the property and structure. You don’t want to rush these things.

The issue gained new quasi-momentum in January, when it came up in Mayor Mufi Hannemann’s State of the City address. He said, “The back-and-forth by advocates of its preservation and proponents of expanded beach space has led to a standoff on the deteriorating monument. We are reviewing a draft of an exhaustive engineering study on the Natatorium.”

Illustration: Jing Jing Tsong

Finally, I thought, someone is taking some action!

Wait, no. 

About two breaths later, he hedged, “I’ll be convening a working group consisting of community representatives and stakeholders to help us reach a decision that’s in the best interests of all the people.”

You know what’s in the best interests of the people? Government that actually does something.

In 30 years, the average person can get an awful lot accomplished. You can raise a child and become a grandparent. Go to medical school, twice. Serve active duty in the military, retire with honors and have 10 years left over to work on your golf game. You could be in prison for an entire “life” sentence. A Dark Ages monk—crouched near his candle and working at a pace of one book every eight months—could transcribe approximately 45 books.

In 30 years, the city has managed to study the darn Natatorium just about to death—hemming and hawing over the coastal area, contemplating the integrity of the structure, weighing alternatives to construction. We’ve got groups pushing to restore the saltwater swimming pool and people who insist it would breed disease. We’ve got scenarios where the pool is filled in and turned into a beach, a park, a volleyball court or a performance space. We’ve got people who want to honor veterans and people who insist that the Natatorium was never meant to be permanent, anyway. We have officials wondering if the façade could be kept, but moved elsewhere.

And the answer, after all this time, is to create “a working group consisting of community representatives and stakeholders to help us reach a decision”? If there’s anything lacking with the Natatorium, it sure isn’t opinions.

Hannemann confidently halted work on the Natatorium his first day in office. In 2005. Four years later and he’s convening a committee? It’s a strangely passive stance from a guy who doesn’t seem scared of bold maneuvers—such as a $5.4 billion rail system.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, which includes the Natatorium on its list of America’s Most Endangered Places, noted the following threats to the monument: deterioration, natural forces and road construction.

To that, I would add, world-class indecision.