It’s Time To Fix The Hawaii State Capitol Reflecting Pools

Honolulu Civil Beat - November 30, 2015
By: 
Mike Gabbard

Have you ever visited our State Capitol and noticed a funky, bad smell coming from the murky, algae-filled unsightly water in the Reflecting Pools surrounding the building?

Well, that’s just part of the problem. Over the years the pool has leaked many times, causing damage to the electrical system and air conditioning in the building.

Furthermore, it costs $100,000 annually for state workers to continually clean the pool waters, which are fed by brackish water from wells. The latest estimate is that it would take approximately $15.2 million to fix the Reflecting Pools.

Unfortunately, even if we spent that much money, we’d still have to come back in several years and do it all over again, because there will always be leaks.
So what’s the solution?

The backstory is that the State Capitol was built in 1969 and is on both the National Register of Historic Places and the State Register of Historic Places. The Reflecting Pools are a combined 77,000 square feet in size and the waterproofing membrane below the Pools hasn’t been replaced in all those years.

A major problem is that there’s inadequate water circulation which causes the water to stagnate and there’s also no filtration system. People have repeatedly thrown fish into the Pools, which worsens the situation. There have actually been sightings of a barracuda!

In 2004, the state Department of Accounting and General Services, the entity responsible for the Capitol grounds, released a study estimating it would cost about $5 million to get the Capitol Reflecting Pools fixed. No concrete action came out of this study.

In 2013, I introduced Senate Bill 21 to appropriate $11.5 million to make improvements to the Reflecting Pools. My bill would have required the incorporation of a natural filtration system using native plants, but it didn’t pass.

During the last several months, I’ve been heading up meetings with Sen. Will Espero, DAGS, the State Historic Preservation Division, and folks from the private sector to consider “out of the box” solutions to this long-existing problem.

For many years, the understanding was that we would have to keep the water in the Reflecting Pools because of its historical nature. However, SHPD recently informed me that we don’t necessarily have to leave the water in the Reflecting Pools as long as we keep the existing “water” theme.

SHPD has also committed to work with us through the process of finding an acceptable design solution that doesn’t fly in the face of its historical designations. This could be something like emptying out all the water in the Reflecting Pools and replacing it with a small fountain and then doing something creative with the rest of the space. Maybe, we could put in some artistic tiling and install water themed sculptures by local artists. If you have any ideas, please contact my office.

My plan is to introduce legislation in 2016 to appropriate $100,000 to fund a new study to look for alternative solutions for addressing the future renovation of the Reflecting Pools to reduce operations and maintenance costs. We’re requesting the UH, School of Architecture, the Hawaii Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and other local experts for their input on what would work best. We’ll ask them to also reach out to the public for input and design suggestions.

And after the study, we’ll make sure something actually gets done this time! It’s time to get serious about making sure the Capitol Reflection Pools truly reflect the beauty, power, and significance of our islands.