Building Better Beaches

A controversial Waikiki beach beautification project gets one step closer to reality.
The Sheraton Waikiki hopes to rebuild its beach with the help of T-shaped groins.

Photo by David Croxford

As Hawaii’s no. 1 tourist destination, Waikiki is constantly reshaping and improving itself, but one resort company’s renovation plans may prove to be more divisive than most. Kyo-ya Hotels and Resorts, which owns the Sheraton Waikiki, is hoping to erect three 160-foot, T-shaped groins in front of the hotel, trapping sand and rebuilding a stretch of beach that is currently all but nonexistent.

It’s a concept supported by the Hawaii Hotel and Lodging Association as well as the Hawaii Tourism Authority, and in May the state Legislature got on board as well, setting aside $1 million in its 2008-2009 budget for restoration projects on resort beaches.

But opponents are already vowing to block the project. George Downing, longtime waterman and spokesperson for the Save Our Surf organization, says the plan amounts to “armoring” the coastline, and will ruin nearby surfing breaks and exacerbate the area’s erosion problems. “What they should do is remove the groin that’s currently in front of the Royal Hawaiian, and let the beach form itself naturally,” he says.

Sam Lemmo, administrator for the Coastal Lands Division at the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, says he’s withholding judgment on this specific project until he sees an environmental impact study, but says that well-engineered beach reclamation projects can be beneficial. “Reclaiming sand from offshore [with groins] should be better for the ecology and the surfing than simply pouring new sand on the beach, because you’re restoring the reef’s 3-D dimensions by pulling the sand off of it,” he says.

Kyo-Ya itself is remaining quiet about its plans, issuing only a prepared statement that “[W]e have been discussing the potential restoration of the area formerly known as Gray’s Beach with ocean recreational users, community groups, environmental and cultural organizations as well as relevant government agencies.”

This would hardly be the first project to tinker with the area’s ocean patterns. Waikiki is actually an almost completely manufactured area, dredged from marshland in the early 20th century. Its coastline has since been sculpted and bolstered by a series of sea walls and groins, a process encouraged by a 1928 agreement made between Waikiki beachfront property owners and the then-Territory of Hawaii.

In the interests of promoting the budding tourist center, the agreement allowed owners to build sand catchment structures such as groins and to claim the new land created, as long as they allowed free public access to the shoreline. Results have been mixed, requiring a continued stream of wall construction and sand replenishment along the Waikiki coast.

In any case, the Legislature’s $1 million allocation is just the beginning for the Sheraton’s project. The 1928 agreement may have greased the wheels for early developers, but it doesn’t let modern landowners off the hook when it comes to the forest of state and federal regulations governing shoreline construction. Lemmo says he expects the permitting and planning of any Waikiki beach reclamation project to take up to two years.