By Gordon Pang
February 4, 2020
Updated 10:59 pm
So far, the city has spent $16.9 million on renovation of the Neal S. Blaisdell Center.
Long-term plans for the Neal S. Blaisdell Center will have to wait for future Honolulu Hale leaders to decide.
Citing the ongoing woes with the city’s rail project as his biggest concern, Mayor Kirk Caldwell on Monday announced he is nixing plans for a major renovation that was to begin later this year.
In a draft environmental impact statement, city officials last year estimated the cost of the work at $773 million.
The controversial overhaul for the 22-acre Blaisdell campus called for demolishing and replacing the existing arena, exhibition hall and parking structure. The plan called for closing for about three years beginning in November.
Caldwell told the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board Thursday that the city is “not yet confident” the first 11-mile segment of the Honolulu rail line will open at the end of this year, and told board members to stop promising the public that rail will open even earlier. He said that while HART is responsible for building the 20-mile rail line from East Kapolei to Ala Moana Center, it is the city Department of Transportation Services that must operate the system, and “the city has not committed to a date for the opening of service.”
Instead, “for the short term, we plan to now focus on addressing some much needed deferred maintenance, and to keep the Blaisdell as fully operational as possible during the maintenance projects,” Caldwell said in release about the complex, which opened in 1964.
“In addition, for the upcoming Fiscal Year 2021 budget, we’ll be considering the significant renovation of one or more of our performance venues, at a reduced scope and cost,” Caldwell said. “I want to emphasize that the planning and design for a modernized Neal Blaisdell Center resulted in an excellent and exciting vision for this facility, and I hope that the future administration will take advantage of it, in whole or in part.”
To date, the city has spent $16.9 million on the project — $4.8 million on a master plan and the rest on a feasibility study, a 30% schematic design and a detailed budget, administration spokeswoman Brandi Higa said Monday.
The basic concept of last year’s Blaisdell Center Master Plan called for the existing arena to be replaced by a nearly identical, clam shell-shaped, but modernized version; the exhibition hall to be demolished and replaced by an upgraded version as well as a 1,500-seat performance hall, an arts ensemble building and a satellite city hall; and the three-story parking structure to be replaced by two new parking facilities that could house about 500 more vehicles.
The Caldwell administration sought $24 million in last year’s capital improvements budget for demolition work, but the Council chopped that amount in half and was hoping to get the rest of the money this year.
The administration also put out a public call for potential partners last year. But what’s formally known as a Request for Qualifications netted the city only two proposals, Higa said Monday.
There was also to be a new sports pavilion attached to the arena, and Victoria Street would extend to Kapiolani Boulevard, creating a true border with McKinley High School. The existing concert hall would be retained but receive significant upgrades. Within the campus were to be garden walkways, water features and five restaurants or bars.
A number of critics have assailed the plan, including area elected officials City Council members Ann Kobayashi and Carol Fukunaga and House Speaker Scott Saiki. They also cited the problems with the rail project.
Kobayashi and Saiki both applauded Caldwell’s decision Monday.
“It only makes sense,” Kobayashi said. “We don’t even know the final cost to rail, and we can’t be committing our taxpayers to all these projects,” she said, noting that even the costs of the Blaisdell plan remained spotty.
She suggested the city could hold discussions with the state about perhaps providing a single entertainment center at the current site of Aloha Stadium. State officials are looking at major redevelopment there. The Halawa location is also consider a major junction for the rail project.
Caldwell said the decision is a “disappointing” development because “we fully believe that major renovations are needed in order for the Blaisdell to best serve the community and to attract world class events and attractions to Honolulu for our local residents,” he said in a release.
“The city has determined that it is not prepared to go forward with the major renovation of the Neal Blaisdell Center at this time,” Caldwell. “Given that the final construction cost is yet unknown for the last 4.16 miles of our rail system and the city’s financial responsibilities for the operations of the upcoming rail service, in addition to a new administration and City Council starting in less than one year, we decided that it is a logical time to pause the project.”
Saiki called the city’s decision a “prudent” one. “The city’s priority is stabilize the cost of rail,” he said. “I’m sure that once rail is completed, the city will be in a much better financial decision to take on a project like the Blaisdell renovation.”
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