Planning for Honolulu’s civic center, the Neal Blaisdell complex, started before Hawai‘i was even a state. The concert hall, arena and exhibition hall were completed in 1964, when O‘ahu’s population was less than half what it is today. Now, a major redesign is aiming for a revitalized community space that attracts global artists in their prime. HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports.
“They’ve done the economic feasibility studies, they’ve completed the Master Plan, we’ve almost completed the first 30% of the schematic design. Basically what we’re doing is bringing the Blaisdell Center, all 22 acres of it, into the 21st century.”
Guy Kaulukukui is Director of Honolulu’s Department of Enterprise Services, spearheading the Blaisdell redevelopment. Three years of planning, study, and stakeholder involvement have finally yielded a Master Plan.
Kaulukukui: This is a fantastic facility that has served our community exceptionally well for 54 years. We’re trying with our renewed effort, to honor the vision of those men and women who dreamed this place for us in the late 50’s and early 60’s. We’re trying to deliver that same vision for our children and our grandchildren and their children.
The Blaisdell campus is bounded by Ward on the ‘Ewa end, and Kapi‘olani Avenues, and King Street. The new Victoria Street extension will connect Kapi‘olani and King on the Diamond Head end of the campus.
Kaulukukui: Basically what we want to do is create venues that are, number one, technologically are of the 21st century, not the 20th. So that it’s up to date with all the technology you expect when you enter a performance venue. Right now, we are not necessarily that kind of facility.
Kaulukukui: Number two, it’s going to be an enhanced facility not only for our visitors who are going to find a much more comfortable, much more visitor friendly environment inside our venues, but our performers are going to find an enhanced experience themselves. Presently, what we, in air quotes, call our Star Dressing room at the arena is really a locker room that was built in 1964. We dress it up and make it as dressy as we can but it’s still, under cover, a locker room, so we’re really creating these venues for visitors and performers have come to expect in the 21st century.
Visitors will have five bars and restaurants from which to choose. There will be city and arts organization offices, plus galleries open in all the lobbies. All this, 18 feet above ground—all venues will connect at the second story! With maintenance and logistic operations on the ground level.
The concert hall and arena will retain their signature looks. The current parking lot will go up stories and be expanded by 900 stalls. You will no longer have to go the entire length of the lot to exit, there will be other options.
Two smaller venues will be added to the complex. Sporting events have drawn smaller crowds than in the past, so an additional sporting venue is planned. Another smaller venue for concerts or theater performances will offer alternatives to booking the large concert hall.
After the redevelopment, Kaulukukui hopes the NBC site will be a natural gathering place. The Thomas Square redevelopment is underway, McKinley High is next door, new apartments are springing up, and there will be a rail station just ma kai of the new NBC complex.
Kaulukukui: You might come here for the five bars and restaurants we’re planning in the Master Plan, you might come to see the public art in our lobbies. All of the lobbies are intended to be galleries.
Ngahiraka Mason, curator for the first Honolulu Biennial, is the Arts Consultant for this project.
The two lanai flanking the concert hall will be enclosed, all the way to the second story where bathrooms, and reception areas will be added. Made in Hawai‘i goers will be happy the exhibition hall will expand by 30 thousand square feet, and those interior posts will be minimized. That will save people from having to go to the arena for parts of the show, and dealing with posts every ten feet.
Kaulukukui: Where we’re going to really make change, is in the arena.
The original scalloped exterior, the look of the roof, the columns, are all retained, but they’re going to be rebuilt. This redesign will gut the arena to its trusses, and set a stage on the ma kai side, no more theater in the round. Amphitheater style seating will then allow promoters to book up to 2000 more seats for each concert.
Kaulukukui: When we create this new amphitheater style seating, our last row is actually a third closer than the last row is now to the stage. Every seat is also going to be better, every seat is going to have better sight lines, and every seat is going to be closer to the performance than it now is. Because the ceiling is going to be taken away and we’re going up into it.
Kaulukukui: Our whole purpose of the reconfiguration is to push us into a whole different stratosphere of acts in Hawai‘i because the reality is that many acts that choose not to come here, don’t come here because the promoter can’t pay them enough to come here. We’re changing that math by changing the seating.
Kaulukukui: That’s the whole expectation in why we would even attempt to make such a radical move in there. It’s because we do expect that it pushes up into a range of acts that currently bypass us because the promoter can’t pay enough.
Kaulukukui: For folks who are old enough, of a particular vintage, what this replaced was the Civic Auditorium. That served the community from about the '20’s or '30’s, and lasted until after the Blaisdell opened. The Civic was one building that did everything. Circular building, it had concerts, it had games in there, it had roller derby, it had wrestling, it had everything. It was our one venue, and it probably took up less than an acre of land. The folks who delivered Blaisdell for us, then the Honolulu International Center, with the grand name, replaced the Civic Auditorium with a 22 acre multiple facility campus that has served our community for 54 years.
Kaulukukui: When it opened, I think the population of Honolulu was around 400 thousand people. Imagine, it served us well as our population almost tripled, just on O‘ahu. That shows me a lot of foresight, a lot of vision, they dreamed something that didn’t exist anywhere in Hawai‘i before they built it here. That’s what we’re trying to do as we go forward. We’re trying to deliver that same level of vision in this project.
Blaisdell’s redevelopment will be a public/private partnership, with the request for proposals going out in November or December this year. Conceivably, the private partner would assist in developing the project, with the carrot of recouping financially through managing operations once facilites are completed.
An 18 month design phase will follow the awarding of a contract, with ground breaking set for 2020. Currently the City anticipates NBC facilities to close between November 2020 and November 2023 however, those dates aren’t firm until after July 1, 2019.
Ryan Tam, President of the Ala Moana-Kakaako Neighborhood Board, says board members had no objections to the plan when it was presented to them several months ago. They're actually more concerned about what may transpire on teh HECO property across Ward from the NBC.
Find out more at ImagineBlaisdell.com or at #imagineBlaisdell. They’re looking for your fond remembrances at the NBC---the slogan being, Memories are made here.