KAILUA-KONA — The beach is an unlikely backdrop for complaints on a sunny West Hawaii weekday.
Such was the case Monday afternoon at Laaloa Beach Park, which was packed nearly end to end. At the well-known strip of sand on the southern stretch of Alii Drive, popularly known as Magic Sands, there isn’t much to gripe about — save for a main parking lot that’s been closed for more than a year.
The Hawaii County Parks and Recreation Department closed the lot in May of 2017, announcing plans to reconfigure and reduce lot capacity with an initial timeline of about 18 months. But 14 months later, nothing has changed and no work has been initiated.
And based on the project plan Mayor Harry Kim chooses, the lot may not come back at all.
Barett Otani, spokesperson for the county’s Department of Public Works, wrote in an email to West Hawaii Today that his department will assist Parks once a plan is in place, but added Parks has not yet provided a timeline.
Roxcie Waltjen, director of Parks, said that’s about to change.
“It’s going to be moving forward real soon,” said Waltjen, adding the project is currently in the “conceptual, planning stages.”
She couldn’t provide a precise timeline but said the project is on Kim’s radar. Waltjen met with the mayor Monday to go over a preliminary sketch of the new layout preceding discussions Kim has planned with stakeholders.
“From there, we’re going to go to a public hearing and then try to move forward with the whole project,” Waltjen said. “Get it done.”
The project itself is a lot older than 14 months and considerably larger than a parking lot renovation. Waltjen explained the parking lot work is just the first phase in what she called the “Laaloa Park expansion project.”
The expansion will include adding walking spaces and a restoration of the natural landscape in the area. The county first introduced the concept during Mayor Stephen Yamashiro’s administration in the 1990s.
Waltjen said current plans for the parking lot reduction and natural expansion are based on a historic preservation plan provided in a 2006 report.
The county must modify the parking lot in the interest of preserving the Haukalua Heiau as per an agreement with lineal descendants and cultural practitioners, as well as the Hawaii Island Burial Council and the State Historic Preservation.
Work at Magic Sands hasn’t been moved to the back burner in favor of a focus on county response to the most recent Kilauea volcano eruption, Waltjen said.
“We’re not looking back on any projects as far as taking away from any other district because we can’t let the rest of the districts stand still,” she said. “We have to keep moving in a positive direction.”
Instead, the holdup revolves around finalizing decisions before moving forward. Initially, a reduced parking lot was planned as a buffer for the heiau.
However, proposals exist that would do away with the parking lot altogether and transform it into more of a gathering area. These are the issues Kim wants to iron out the with the people and organizations holding stake in the project, Waltjen said.
She added the project budget remains fluid and won’t be finalized until these decisions are made.
With the parking lot in limbo, beach goers continue to park along the makai side of Alii Drive and at the Kipapa Park lot across the street just north of Magic Sands.
Likely public concerns would seem to be safety and inconvenience, but Waltjen said most of what she’s encountered are people who simply want to know what’s going to happen and when.
And Monday afternoon, swimmers and sunbathers weren’t overly concerned with the empty lot on the beach’s south edge.
Lyle Pua, who’s lived on the island all his life, said he’s used to walking with no sidewalks. Thus, while a stroll up Alii through traffic isn’t ideal, it doesn’t concern him from a safety perspective.
“Fortunately, there’s a lot across here,” he said, referring to parking at Kipapa Park, “but having that extra space (in the closed lot) would help.”
Ernest and Makana Tavares, siblings who spent nearly two decades on the island before moving away five years ago, were back in Kona visiting family Monday.
“I’d say there are definitely more people here than there used to be,” Ernest said.
He added it would be nice if there wasn’t parking on the road but that it’s been happening for as long as he can remember, so the parking lot closure probably hasn’t made much of an impact in that way.
Makana doesn’t regard the current parking situation as an inconvenience.
“Honestly, with the numbers (Magic Sands) can accommodate, I think it’s better not to have a ton of parking because it’s such a small beach and it gets crowded,” she said. “If you have to park a little bit further and you actually want to come here, (you will).”