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Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, August 11, 2000

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Large banyans shade picnickers, and other parkgoers
who run and stroll through the area daily.

Growth spurt

Kapiolani Park grows and changes,
as it's done many times in the past,
to catch up with the times and keep
up with the hundreds who enjoy it daily

Party in the park
Planners aim to be pedestrian-friendly

By Burl Burlingame

KAPIOLANI Park -- the oldest municipal park in the islands, where you can run across emerald grass and not crash headlong into concrete, where the cacophony of modern life gives way to the elemental thwack of bats on balls -- is a place where things change just so they can remain the same.

Kapiolani Park, 123 years old, is in the midst of the biggest facelift it's had in decades, a highly visible effort in an election year. The city's approach has been to turn "progress" on its ear. Instead of concrete and asphalt nibbling away at greenery and open space, Honolulu is becoming more park-like. Think of it as a chlorophyll counter-attack.

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
"Honolulu Bulls Soccer Club" practices at the park,
as do many other soccer clubs. Kapiolani is also a
hit with baseball groups and tag football players.

Waikiki resident Elsi Burgess has used Kapiolani Park for decades and says changes made over the last year have "improved it greatly. The new restrooms near the Natatorium, for example, are actually usable and pleasant. And the Natatorium has finally been restored -- now to do the pool! -- and we really like the new bandstand area."

A little history

Characterized from the beginning as "swamp land in a desert," Kapiolani Park has struggled to find a constant environmental niche. The land became a park specifically because it wasn't considered suitable for anything else, and because of it's peculiar climate -- it's one of the few places on Oahu where rain almost never falls. And because King Kalakaua loved the ponies.

After a number of horse races were canceled because of muddy tracks in the wet winter of 1876, racing enthusiasts asked the king for a permanent, dry course. Many ali'i lived in Waikiki, so Kalakaua chose the flat plain at the foot of Diamond Head because it was handy, unoccupied and dry. The government condemned the land and Kalakaua decided to make its dedication memorable.

On June 11, 1877, Kapiolani Park was dedicated in a blaze of glory -- horse races galore, barrel races, even sack races.

File photo
In the early 1900s, people picnicked near the
banks of streams that ran through Kapiolani Park.

The park was the first Hawaiian public space, and began the vision of a group of civic-minded businessmen, who convinced Kalakaua to give them a 30-year lease. The Kapiolani Park Association was chartered to create "a tract of land in the vicinity of Honolulu as a place of public resort," where "agricultural and stock exhibitions, and healthful exercise, recreations and amusements" could occur.

Scotsman Archibald Cleghorn, Governor of Oahu and father of Princess Kaiulani, was the park's sparkplug. Vice-president and later president of the Kapiolani Park Association, Cleghorn planned the park's landscaping, including the majestic ironwood trees along Kalakaua Avenue.

Money was raised by selling $50 shares in the association. Shareholders had the right to lease a beachfront lot skirting the park, and many of the best-known names in Honolulu had cottages there by the 1880s. During the 1893 revolution, most of these valuable properties became privately owned, and most were later given back to the city or condemned and seized.

Baseball followed as a natural successor to horse-racing, and became a regular Saturday attraction. The two main teams were the Athletes and the Whangdoodles.

Grounds were manicured and lilyponds were created. Wild peacocks became a park fixture. Picnicking took place on the banks of streams, and no two footbridges were built alike. The area was a playground for average citizens.

High and dry

Kapiolani Park looked much different than it does now. The alluvial plains of Waikiki and Honolulu were, a century ago, a latticework of islands, bridges, streams, drainage canals and rice fields, an unusual mix of swampy lowlands and desert-dry "uplands" a few feet above sea level.

The entrance to the original park was the centerpiece of Makee Island. The first bandstand was where the zoo is now.

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Kapiolani Park's exercise area always
draws people, including Thomas
Rodrigues and his daughter Ariana, 5.

At the turn of the century, as hotels began to spring up in Waikiki, park superintendent Alexander Young hustled private contributions to beautify the park, and to convince the city to condemn and raze dozens of shacks that had sprung up on the park's outskirts.

The 1920s, as it turned out, nearly destroyed the park. Lucius Pinkham's drainage proposal for the Ala Wai Canal called for the canal to loop back to the sea through Kapiolani Park. Without the complete loop, without tidal flushing, the canal filled with silt. The Ala Wai Canal lowered Waikiki's water table so drastically that Kapiolani Park's pleasant waterways turned into sludge. By the late '30s, the park was largely abandoned to rotting vegetation, trash dumps and muddy trails.

Constant themes in stories about the park since then have been inconsistent vision and sporadic funding. As park superintendent Lester McCoy observed in the 1920s, Kapiolani has "an excellent polo field, a good baseball diamond, some fair tennis courts, a very mediocre zoo and tremendous possibilities."

After World War II, the city made park renovation a priority. The "Kapiolani Park of The Future" master plan unveiled in 1952 established current park boundaries and recreation areas.

The City's last Kapiolani Park master plan, proposed in 1975, was condemned by citizens' groups furious about being left out of the hearing process. The plan was largely ignored, particularly due to sections suggesting closing Kalakaua and Monsarrat avenues.

Sporting life

Sports crazes helped sustain the park in lean times, and have given the park an identity. Polo was introduced by businessman Walter Dillingham.

In the '40 and '50s, tennis was a hardcore attraction; in the '80s and '90s, soccer ruled. Now rugby's the game.

Retired teacher Burgess uses the park as a place to walk and exercise. She's concerned about dilapidated exercise equipment near the tennis courts. "It's either falling apart or they've taken it away, and it's not complicated stuff. It's bars to hang from or do chin-ups, or leaning boards for crunches.

"The other night I counted 15 people waiting in line to use the equipment that's left, and a number of them were tourists. That's not a good image when equipment in public parks is in such disrepair that it looks pathetic. And it's so easy to repair. What does that say about Honolulu?"

Anything else?

"Oh yes, there are areas that need more watering. It's dusty and the grass needs it. It's so dry."

Some things never change about Kapiolani Park.

 | | |

Party in the park

Bullet What: Kuhio Beach Ho'olaule'a, celebrating the completion of Phase I of the beach park upgrade.
Bullet Date: 5 to 10 p.m. tomorrow
Bullet Place: Kuhio Beach Stage
Bullet Admission: Free
Bullet Call: 5 to 10 p.m. tomorrow

The lineup:

Bullet 5:20 p.m. -- Sistah Robi Kahakalau and Friends
Bullet 6:10 p.m. -- Halau Hula Olana
Bullet 6:40 p.m. -- 'Ale'a
Bullet 7:30 p.m. -- Hula Halau O Maiki
Bullet 8 p.m. -- Pure Heart
Bullet 9 p.m. -- Makaha Sons

The changes:

With the addition of the beaches and zoo to Kapiolani Park, acreage has increased from 138 to 201 acres.

Bullet The $15 million Kuhio Beach Park expansion began in October 1999 with the demolition of the Waikiki police station, concession area and restrooms.
Bullet Phase I, from the Moana Hotel to the banyan tree, included the new police station, new concession/comfort station, beach showers, hula mound or performance stage, stone walkways, new surfboard racks, new tables and benches in the table-game pavilions, and enhancement of the area around the Duke Kahanamoku statue.
Bullet Phase I also included the removal of one lane of Kalakaua Avenue so 1 acre of beach could be added.
Phase II of Kuhio Beach Park is scheduled for completion later this year.

Planners aim for
pedestrian-friendly park

The recent changes at Kapiolani Park indicate a renewed city interest in quality-of-life issues.

City managing director Ben Lee, explaining the city's vision for the area, said, "The idea is to extend the park experience as far as possible, to incorporate Kuhio Beach and San Souci and the zoo into Kapiolani Park.

"Right now they're kind of separate. It isn't easy, for example, to get from the zoo to the park, and designers are looking at ways of improving that, while retaining the special nature of the art fence.

"One way of doing that is by improving the facilities and continuing maintenance to the same standard."

The goal is to make the area pedestrian-friendly. One way to do this might be to replace city buses with electric trams with rubber tires; they'd be quieter and wouldn't pollute.

"And parking is a problem," Lee observes. "There are about 930 parking stalls and that isn't enough, particularly on weekends."

The zoo is getting some significant improvements, $3 million this year, more than $8 million next year, said Lee. Some of the monies are going to improve the Zoo's stage area. While the Kapiolani Park Bandstand was being reconstructed, the city experimented with hosting musical events in the zoo and was surprised by their popularity. So expect more.

The city administration says its goal for Waikiki is to create what local urban planners have generally called "a lei of green," a belt of open space and vegetation that provides relief from the chockablock concretization of Waikiki.

With Fort DeRussy anchoring one end of Waikiki, Kapiolani Park provides another green bookend for the cinderblock stackings that characterize Waikiki architecture.

"If the state will dredge Ala Wai Canal and improve water flow in it so it doesn't remain stagnant, that area could also become beautiful," said Lee. Planting trees to soften the lines of buildings has become a city goal all over Honolulu, he said.

More lighting is planned, and generic, cobra-headed industrial streetlights will be replaced with something warmer and fuzzier.

By Burl Burlingame, Star-Bulletin

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