Cover Story

City and citizens grapple over the meaning of Honolulu's public playground

Scramble to the top of Diamond Head crater, gaze town-side, and there it is, Kapi’olani Park, a 150-acre expanse of mostly green grass and trees that appears to have stopped Waikiki’s march of concrete and steel in its tracks. One-fifth the size of New York’s Central Park, some 60 years older than its cousin, Ala Moana Beach Park, Kapi’olani has a convoluted past that has put the city in the odd position of being manager but not actual owner of the land, and a small group of haole activists in the middle of the latest fight over what they consider over-commercialization of Honolulu’s quintessential public space.

Wednesday 6pm, Kapi’olani Park
Next to the bandstand, sunlight slants through hundred-year-old ironwood trees. Fifty people sit or stand in loose array on the grass, listening to the testimony of a woman in her thirties. She details her progress toward sobriety, four months out of prison. At 6:30 everyone links hands and, while kids turn cartwheels inside the circle, intones first the Lord’s Prayer then chants ‘It works if you work it,’ before disbanding.

‘We’re here every day,’ says Ed, leader of one of three Alcoholics Anonymous groups that meet in the park, while signing a proof-of-attendance form for a probationer. ‘It’s about helping each other, getting out of yourself, living God’s will.’
Everyone uses Kapi’olani Park–from followers of the 12 steps to sobriety to lovers sharing a loaf of bread and surreptitious sips of wine at sunset. The setting seems to be the result of brilliant urban planning, the triumph of the logic of preserving green space in what has become an overcrowded, automobile-obsessed city. And, at first glance, history would appear to bear out the myth.

Royal idea

King Kalakaua (the park is named in honor of his wife) stood before a large crowd on Kamehameha Day, 1877, at the racetrack beneath Diamond Head Crater. In a speech often cited as proof of royal foresightedness, the King spoke about touring the great capitals of the world.

‘I was greatly struckÖwith the large public spaces set apart in and near cities for public grounds, and the care and expense put upon themÖIf we cannot vie in expense and in artificial adornment with the parks of Europe and America, I see no reason why we should not undertake to do what is proportionate to our means.’

Fair enough, but as Robert Weyeneth, author of Kapi’olani Park, A History, points out, ‘The origins of the park are a bit more complicated than that–less democratic, more self-serving, and more private.’ In his book Weyeneth records another part of Kalakaua’s speech to prove his point: ‘I trust that your hopes may be realized that this [park] may become the site of agricultural and industrial exhibitions, that it may become the frequent and general resort of all our citizens and visitors and that we may erelong see a miracle suburb on yonder beach.’ Suburb?

‘The park has always reflected the times–and in those first 20 years of its existence it was primarily a seaside resort for Kalakaua and his [haole] friends,’ says Weyeneth, who was in the University of Hawai’i American Studies Department for five years, and is now a history professor at the University of South Carolina. The park was established by a private corporation, which sold shares to some of the islands’ wealthiest men. By purchasing a share, an investor was entitled to lease a house lot in the park, and build what today would be considered a vacation home. Kalakaua provided 300 acres of crown land, leased to the Kapi’olani Park Association for one dollar a year, and two haole landowners agreed to lease out additional adjacent land, rounding out the park’s original boundaries.

The idea, according to Weyeneth, was to create a residential development, at the center of which ‘would be a racetrack surrounded by ornamental ponds and carriage drives. Landscaping would be undertaken at the site, not to establish a public park as such, but to provide an attractive setting for the homes of affluent investors. The idea was that the landscape design would beautify the neighborhood, contribute to the value of the residential real estate, and satisfy the recreational tastes of racing enthusiasts.’

By the early 1890s, the initial design was set, with the mile-long racetrack as the centerpiece. At the Waikiki end (covering the acreage roughly occupied by the zoo today) were manmade ponds linked by wooden bridges. At the Diamond Head end were tree-lined carriage drives (one is now Paki Avenue) and horse stables. And, as Weyeneth writes, ‘Surrounding the racetrack, waterscape, and drives, were the houses of the park’s shareholders.’

But the park’s exclusivity was always tempered by the king’s other intent: that the space become ‘the frequent and general resort of all of our citizensÖ.’

In 1896, the park passed officially into public hands, by means of Act 53 of the Legislature of the Republic of Hawaii (the entity created by haole oligarchs, in existence from the time of the overthrow in 1893 until annexation in 1898). The transfer came with conditions, however: management of the park was to be overseen by a board of six trustees of the Honolulu Park Commission. Despite its name, the commission was not a city agency and it administered only Kapi’olani Park. People like Lorrin Thurston, a prominent ‘revolutionary,’ sat on the board.

Kind of public

Act 53 was a watershed for the park. For the first time its boundaries were set and its existence as a public space guaranteed in perpetuity. However, the original leases sold to investors in 1876 remained intact, leaving the entire beachfront in private hands. Eventually, of course, these leases would expire, at which point the government would have the option of renewing or canceling the arrangement with the leaseholders.

This fact had occurred to leaseholder William Irwin. The wealthy businessman had political clout; one of his employees was on the Honolulu Park Commission. In the same year that Act 53 became law, Irwin got the Republic of Hawaii to transfer 37 of his lots into fee simple.

The early example of lease-to-fee conversion in Honolulu left the park smaller and, since many of the lots were along the shoreline, Diamond Head of where the Natatorium now stands, it explains why today’s ‘Gold Coast’ condos appear as such an anomaly–a sudden resprouting of Waikiki after so much greenery.

Archibald Cleghorn, Kalakaua’s brother-in-law and father of Princess Ka’iulani, thought the deal stunk. ‘The monarchy, which had leased them, never contemplated selling them,’ he said at the time, in reference to the converted leasehold lots. And, in a statement that causes one to fantasize when gazing upon the Gold Coast’s wall of white towers today, ‘Think how beautiful our park would be had these lots been held [by the government] and thrown open on the expiration of the leases.’

Around the same time, other lots were converted to fee. Sixty percent of the beachfront between Kapahulu Avenue and Sans Souci Beach was private. Businessmen such as James Castle and Emanuel Cunha built great mansions along this stretch–their names linger on in the surfbreaks along the coast. It would take decades for the city to gain control of some of these lots and provide public beach access.

Saturday 6:30am, Sans Souci
We pull paddleboards from atop our vehicles and walk toward the ocean as the Natatorium facade turns golden in the morning sun. Cops are rousting two teens who have spent the night on the beach. I stop to talk to the officers. Why are there no homeless people in Kapi’olani Park, while this reporter counted more than 80 souls preparing to bed down in Ala Moana Beach Park on the previous evening? Answer: There are homeless, you just haven’t found them–but yeah, there aren’t as many. Why? The smaller cop hems and haws, but the bigger cop shakes his head knowingly and says, ‘It’s the people over there,’ nodding at the row of seaside condos. ‘They call ’em in.’

Robert Weyeneth sees a ‘Ödirect historical parallelÖ’ when comparing the parks that bracket Waikiki. ‘Kapi’olani was always an enclave of the few, the rich, the wellborn. Today, such a sense of pride of ownership remains in the neighbors of the park.’ Ala Moana, he explains, was a product of Depression-era planning. Built largely with federal money and owned outright by the city, Ala Moana lacks the Gold Coast’s numerous, adjacent, property-tax-paying residents.

On a recent evening in a Gold Coast condo, with what used to be called a million-dollar view (but now, who knows?) of the sea and the curve of Waikiki Beach, members of the Kapi’olani Park Preservation Society (KPPS) have gathered to explain their current battles with the city.

The society was formed by mostly Gold Coast residents in the 1980s, explains Jack Gillmar, former president, in response to the city’s attempts to grant a concession to the Burger King fast-food chain inside the zoo. Currently, one-third of the society’s 150 members reside in the luxury-condo cluster at the end of Kalakaua Avenue.

When KPPS founding member Allan Voronaeff found out about Act 53, stipulating that the park must be ‘free to all,’ KPPS took the document and ran with it–all the way to the state Supreme Court. In a 1988 landmark case, the court nixed the Burger King idea, ruling that the city was bound by the terms of the trust, including some ambiguous language about commercial use. A subsequent 1991 ruling established the nine members of the Honolulu City Council as the new Kapi’olani Park trustees.

The council wears two clashing hats: While it oversees all other city and county parks and can pass whatever ordinance they see fit regarding their management, when it comes to Kapi’olani Park, they must tread carefully amid constant court interpretations of their powers with regard to the original trust document of 1896, not to mention the constant scrutiny of the KPPS.

No-business zone

‘The city’s Corporation Council seems to feel that, as far as the park is concerned, commerce equals recreation,’ says Nancy Bannick, longtime KPPS member and community activist. (She was at the forefront of the successful 1960s Save Diamond Head movement to stop developer Chin Ho’s plan to build a solid line of high-rise hotels linking the Gold Coast with the then Kahala Hilton.) ‘A great deal of commercial vending is currently going on under the cover of nonprofits. We don’t want to be considered killjoys, we simply want the park to be free of commercial enterprise, as specified by the trust,’ states Bannick.

A city policy limits major events in the park, such as the Life Foundation’s Walk for Life or the Honolulu Marathon, to once a month. However, on any given weekend, a visitor to the bandstand area can shop till he or she drops at a craft fair. Many of these vendors set up their tents several times a year under the park’s trees, and the KPPS says they’re there for one reason: money.

‘The park is the perfect commercial environment,’ says Jack Gillmar. ‘It’s good for sellers. They pay no rent, no property tax, they’re right next to Waikiki. For buyers, there are some great deals–up to a 50 percent discount, because of the vendors’ zero-overhead. Their permits specify that the crafts sold must be handmade by the seller. But this creates a slippery slope. The vender buys a T-shirt made in Taiwan, sprays it with a logo, and calls it his own.’

He points out that even ethnic events, such as the yearly Okinawa Festival, have a commercial component. ‘You go into one tent and they are selling T-shirts and packaged food from Japan. Yes, the organization gets a cut–but the vendor takes away his profit too.’ When the Pro Bowl came to town in February the bandstand end of the park filled up with booths selling NFL merchandise. Gillmar displays photos showing a row of metered parking stalls, barricaded and occupied by vendors’ vehicles. ‘This is public parking,’ he says, ‘being taken out of public use.’ He says that the same thing happens for Sunset on the Beach, even though the event is outside the park boundary.

The spirit of the 1896 Trust, Gillmar insists, is that Kap’iolani Park is ‘a common–in the European sense of the word. People come and go–use it, then leave. But various groups want exclusive use, and their use conflicts with the idea of the common.’

When the second annual JAL Honolulu Triathlon (the city was a co-sponsor) took over the park in April, the combination professional and amateur event, with $80,000 in prize money for the pros, was by all accounts something of a nightmare for residents and businesses in the Diamond Head end of the Park. The city received complaints about people being either trapped or having access problems from the Aquarium, the Kaimana Beach Hotel, Outrigger Canoe Club and La Pietra School.

‘Parking was barricaded for days before the event,’ says KPPS president and Gold Coast resident Alethea Rebman, ‘and they didn’t take them down for two weeks after it was over. Advertising was supposed to be restricted, but the park was filled with hundreds of JAL banners. When I complained to the race organizers about the barricades, they blamed it on the contractors they hired for the set up. But if the contractors hadn’t put the no-parking barricades on time, before the event, you can bet [the race organizers] would have been all over them.’

And what about the venders who set up shop on the Queen’s Surf side of the park during the triathlon, selling everything from puka-shell necklaces to hot dogs?

‘There was no permit allowing them to be there,’ says the mayor’s press secretary Bill Brennan. ‘The race organizer said he knew nothing about it. He wondered if someone had merely set up something where they could make money, without a permit.’ The city has no idea who the venders were and have no plans to prosecute.

The Hanneman administration admits there might have been some confusion in the minds of the triathlon organizers about the terms of the permit for this year’s event.

‘The permit requirements were completely waived by the city manager in 2004 [under the Harris administration],’ Brennan explains. ‘It could be that they assumed the same would be true this year. It wasn’t. We’re still holding their $1,500 deposit, to cover the cost of possible damage to the park.’ Damage such as sprinkler heads crushed by triathlon vehicles driving on the grass.

Waiving the terms of the permit is one example of the possible conflict of interest that can arise when the city co-sponsors an event in the park. As Park Trustees, the City Council is bound by a stringent set of rules about for-profit activities; as city boosters, an event like the triathlon is, in the words of Keith Rollman, head of the city’s economic development office, ‘a welcome addition to the local economy.’

Rollman points out that ‘sports tourism’ is a growing market, and that ‘O’ahu would be negligent in not claiming its share.’ The triathlon and the Honolulu Marathon are ‘low impact, environmentally friendly, with no permanent infrastructure required,’ says Rollman.

‘Look,’ he adds, ‘it would no doubt be far less trouble [for residents] if we ran the thing in the middle of nowhere, but the photogenic nature of the event is part of the value to tourism. The worldwide television broadcast from the park has all the elements, showing off Diamond Head and Waikiki.’

The view of the park as a beauty queen for the tourist industry makes the KPPS objections to commercial use an uphill battle. No matter how hard they fight, it seems unavoidable that Kapi’olani Park will be marketed in some way, with cash flowing into someone’s pocket, somewhere. Rollman seems sensitive to this issue, and to the legal weight of the trust, when he hastens to amend his comments: ‘Every permittee for a park event must have a nonprofit arm.’

Art in the park

‘It was Jeremy Harris who suggested we become a nonprofit,’ says Dieter Offermann, president of the Association of Zoo Fence Artists, a group that has hung its artwork on the chain-link fence along the Monsarrat Avenue side of the Honolulu Zoo every weekend for the past 51 years.

Early on a recent Saturday morning, Offermann and the other artists are setting up their wares as tourists begin trickling by. ‘We take a dollar a day out of each artist’s display fee and donate $4,000 a year to Big Brothers and Big Sisters’ art-related programs for handicapped students,’ says Margaret Giles, the association’s treasurer.

If the zoo-fence artists seem a little defensive, it’s understandable. ‘The KPPS people have been harassing us for years–they want us gone from the park,’ explains another artist, who requested anonymity. Indeed, the KPPS makes no bones about it–as a semi-permanent, profit-making group (the artists keep what they make, after paying excise tax) the artists are in violation of the trust. Says KPPS’s Gillmar: ‘In a sense, a piece of the park has been sold off to this particular vendor.’

Artist Margaret Giles cries foul. ‘The zoo charges admission. It has a gift shop that sells art. The Shell charges admission. And every weekend there’s an ethnic festival or craft fair, and they sell things. It seems like [KPPS has] singled us out.’
According to some fence artists, the KPPS has another agenda.

‘I remember going to a neighborhood board meeting in the ’90s to give testimony,’ recounts Giles. ‘[KPPS emeritus member] Cynthia Marnie stood up and told everyone how beautiful the park was in the evening when she was done swimming at Sans Souci, because there was no one in it. That may be what they want–but the park is enjoyed by a lot of people.’

In fact, the KPPS has objected to the zoo charging admission. In 1998, society member Voronaeff wrote a piece in the Star-Bulletin, stating that the terms of the 1896 park trust allow the managers of ‘special’ entertainments and exhibitions to charge admission. Voronaeff stated that various courts had determined that ‘special’ means less than two weeks in duration. These rulings had already forced the Kodak Hula Show, which closed in 2002, to stop charging admission, but the KPPS efforts, which included a cease-and-desist letter to the council, have to date come to nothing with regard to the zoo. They had better success with the golf driving range that used to run along Paki Avenue–the courts ruled that it was a permanent commercial operation and it was removed in the early 1990s. Now, dogs frolic where golf balls used to fly. (Mayor Hannemann recently mentioned the possibility of privatizing at least part of the zoo’s operation–a move that would almost surely bring the KPPS down on his head.)

Zoo artist Giles throws up her hands. ‘This patch of dirt–between the sidewalk and the fence–is no good for picnicking, or anything else really. It’s perfect for what we do, and we’ve been doing it for over 50 years.’

Professor Weyeneth points out that those who might want to restore Kapi’olani to some ideal of Victorian perfection, as Jeremy Harris seemed to have in mind with his ‘Hawaiian sense of place’ design for the bandstand built in 2000, may be harking back to a park that never existed.

‘The 19th-century park was full of horses, and not at all green, because there was no irrigation,’ he says, ‘and the land lies in the extreme lee of the island, with limited rainfall. In the late 1940s and early ’50s, you get the green appearance but also mass recreation facilities, like bathrooms and the Shell. To restore the park to some earlier version would require extensive demolition of existing structures–structures that are very popular with residents.’

Sunday 6:30pm, Kapi’olani Park
Three women in swimsuits stand next to a car in earnest conversation with a police officer.

What’s up? Gayle, a local Japanese in her fifties, says, pointing to her friend, ‘Oh, she got her purse stolen while we were swimming.’ Mumbling about crackheads and thieves in general, Gayle nevertheless responds with a smile to my rather untimely questions, asking what she thinks about Kap’iolani Park.

‘I’ve been coming here since small-kid time,’ she says, and the theft won’t change that. Raised in town, she now lives in Mililani. ‘Sometimes we rent a couple of hotel rooms in Waikiki, and have a barbecue in the park. No need drive home, yeah? Tourists, locals, whatever. We all enjoy this place.’


She laughs. Before turning away to comfort her friend, she says, ‘Just look around!’