City takes over Kakaako parks; mayor says big fixes and funding preclude playground

Always Investigating

HONOLULU (KHON2) — The City and County of Honolulu officially takes over Kakaako makai parks this week, in one of Hawaii’s largest such land transfers. Always Investigating first reported about the upcoming handover and follows up.

The city takes on backlogged maintenance, lingering homeless issues and many opportunities to activate an underused park. We talked to Mayor Kirk Caldwell about the plans, and about the ongoing Ala Moana playground controversy and whether Kakaako could be an alternative.

More than 40 acres of park land, parking lots and streets will go from Hawaii Community Development Authority to city jurisdiction as of Friday, Nov. 1.

After Always Investigating first reported it was coming, opponents of a playground planned for Ala Moana beach park — along with several councilmembers — suggested moving the project to Kakaako instead, near the Children’s Discovery Center. Among the reasons the city previously cited for not changing locations is that any playground at Kakaako would need an E.I.S. especially since some of the area is a former landfill.

Always Investigating found the HCDA already recently completed an EIS that planned for a play area, adventure zone, splash pad, sports areas and concessions. ( Kakaako parks EIS here ; EIS acceptance letter here )

KHON2 asked Caldwell: HCDA paved that was already; is there any room for a compromise — because that E.I.S. exists for this park — to look one more time at the potential of moving the inclusive playground here?

“I’ve mentioned I’m not opposed to playgrounds in all our parks,” Caldwell said. “We want more playgrounds in parks, we want more dog parks in our parks. But the issue here is we’re standing here today and do you see anyone in this park? We have a lot of work to do here and building on the foundation that was laid by HCDA on their E.I.S. We will look to improve it, but it’s nowhere close to where Ala Moana Beach Park is today.” (Ala Moana Regional Park plan website here, including E.I.S.):

KHON2 asked the mayor: What would you say to those who may say, if you build it they will come, or that some do come to the next door Children’s Discovery Center?

“Well, as I drove in here, I drove by the Children’s Discovery Center. I didn’t see anyone there,” Caldwell said. “This (the Ala Moana playground) is a commitment by a group of private citizens willing to build and inclusive playground at Ala Moana. I can’t be the one to say no don’t do it here do it over there. And there’s a reason to do it there, because there are a lot of kids that go there, and it’s 119 acres without a playground.”

“At another time, when we put the effort here at Kakaako, I think it would be something to consider,” Caldwell said.

The city has to do millions in big-ticket fixes in Kakaako. At the handover signing Tuesday, the state gave the city a check for $2.25 million for backlogged maintenance and capital improvements. The city is hiring 24 staff for this park, including maintenance, rangers and recreation personnel.

“If you imagine what we have today,” explained Department of Parks and Recreation Director Michelle Nekota, “and you look at it in three, four, five months, it’s going to look amazing. The trees will be trimmed, we’ll have planted new trees. We’ll repave the parking lot as well as renovated the comfort stations as well as repair the irrigation systems and hopefully the grass will be much greener.”

Since 2015 under a right-of-entry agreement, the city has been periodically clearing homeless encampments based on stored property and sidewalk nuisance ordinances.

“Having this land transfer is somewhat of a homecoming, but it’s also an opportunity for us to make sure we’re able to enforce city ordinances,” explained Department of Facility Maintenance Director Ross Sasamura.

Islandwide since 2013, the city’s enforcement team cleared nearly 5.7 million pounds of trash, 4,091 cubic yards of metals, and nearly 17,000 shopping carts from streets, parks and sidewalks on Oahu.

But the lingering homeless issues along stretches of road in Kakaako are among the reasons the mayor says a playground there is premature, despite a Honolulu City Council committee passing a resolution last week asking the city administration to move the Ala Moana plan to Kakaako.

“Building an inclusive playground now, where no kids are going to be coming and playing, where we could have the homeless coming in and tying their tent straps to it and all the rest, I think it is not the way to go,” Caldwell said.

The city says at least the field and gathering areas are ready to be used by the community right away. As of Nov. 1, permits for use of the Kakaako parks and fields can be obtained from the parks department’s District 2 office at 808-768-9292.  A section of just the Kakaako Waterfront Park will be closed from Nov. 1 through Feb. 2, 2020. Point Panic and the stairway access to the Kewalo channel will not be closed.

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