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The Varsity Theater: What can we learn from this?
The owners cited structural damage such as cracks, mold and a rusted pile as justification for demolishing a landmark of the community. From the public vantage point, it is difficult to know if the damage was significant enough to justify the demolition of the building, or if that was a rationalization that masked the true motives.
All buildings need regular maintenance and period capital improvements to remain viable. Absent regular upkeep, significant one-time repairs and rehabilitation can compensate for incremental deterioration. Unsightliness can be reversed; dirt and mold can be cleaned; cracks can be repaired.
The owners cited an unsafe building, but did not use evaluations by professional engineers and architects trained in preservation techniques, who could bring that perspective and expertise to the analysis. It may be that the damage was too great and the costs were too high; but it may not. Absent the analysis, it is unknown. Absent the building, it will never be known.
What we do know is that the owner felt that the property was worth more without the historic building on it. Demolishing the architectural gem, filling our scarce landfills with its rubble (using fuel to transport it), importing more materials from elsewhere (more fuel) to build another building or pave a parking lot was perceived as a better fiscal decision than preserving, rehabilitating and using it.
What can we do to remedy this?
It’s too late for the Varsity Theater. But it need not be too late for other buildings in Mō‘ili‘ili, or Kaka‘ako, or Wai‘alae, or the other communities that have historic buildings that are part of the fabric of the street, the neighborhood, the places that are loved.
We need to place a higher value on our historic places, a value that takes into account the intangible benefits as well as the full range of economic ones. If property owners and developers adhered to a bottom line that accounted for economic, environmental, educational, cultural and community benefits, decisions could be different. Until the public ethic changes and communities demand more from leaders and decision-makers, losses will continue.
On a practical level, a few simple changes in the regulations and other actions would help:
• Prior to issuing demolition permits for buildings older than 50 years, the permitting agency could consult with the State Historic Preservation Division.
• The City & County of Honolulu could establish its own Preservation Commission and seek designation as a Certified Local Government to help evaluate which buildings contribute to an area’s historic integrity and which do not.
• The City & County could also enact significant penalties for bringing entire buildings to its landfills, or alternatively, could offer significant incentives for not adding construction and demolition debris to the waste stream.
• Local grassroots organizations could initiate nominations to the Hawai‘i State Register of Historic Places to designate its landmarks prior to them being threatened.
• Master planning and development plans could include an inventory and survey of historic sites, which could then be integrated into the long-range plans for an area, rather than seen as impediments to them.
These actions, and others, would help alter the way in which demolition decisions are made by making systemic change. There are many lessons learned from the loss of the Varsity Theater.
There is also a call to action. Historic Hawai‘i Foundation will continue to work with elected officials, city departments, property owners and developers and the general public to avoid similar losses.
We need to start bringing our friends and neighbors in to strengthen the voice of historic preservation in Hawai‘i. You can help by encouraging a friend to become a member of Historic Hawai‘i Foundation. Each member in Historic Hawaii Foundation brings us closer to a Hawai‘i that values its historic places. Historic places that are valued are rarely demolished.