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  From The Garden Island, October 15, 2004

Rivera leads support for rebuilding of Coco Palms Resort

By Lester Chang

People interested in testifying and hearing about the latest agenda of the Planning Commission pass the time in various ways Tuesday afternoon at the Lihu'e Civic Center. Among those who attended were Larry Rivera (with 'ukulele), who intended to sing a song during the Coco Palms phase of the meeting, and longtime Coco Palms employee Charlie Perreira (seated with cap).

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LIHU'E -- When longtime Kaua'i entertainer Larry Rivera thinks back about some of the best times in his life, images of Coco Palms Resort come crystal clear.

More than 50 years ago, Rivera worked as front-desk clerk, cocktail waiter and waiter at the Coco Palms Lodge, owned by Mr. and Mrs. Alfred D. Hills, the forerunner of the Coco Palms Resort.

As an employee of the resort, Rivera blossomed into a professional entertainer, performed for Elvis Presley, occasionally led the narration for the exclusive torch-lighting ceremony, and imparted old-fashioned Hawaiian hospitality that he said defined hotelier Grace Guslander.

Rivera was among 20 supporters who attended a public hearing of the Kaua'i Planning Commission convened Tuesday on a multi-million-dollar proposal by Coco Palms LLC to renovate and redevelop the old Coco Palms.

Should the county commission grant the permits, Hawai'i's most elegant hotel in the 1950s and 1960s would be resurrected.

Rivera said the hotel symbolized the best of the aloha spirit and hospitality in Hawai'i, and believes Coco Palms, LLC leader Richard Weiser and his group will bring the hotel back to its former glory as the premier Polynesian-style resort in the Pacific.

Rivera said he began working at the Coco Palms Lodge on Sept. 13, 1951, then went into the Army in the early 1950s and returned to Kaua'i after the Korean conflict ended.

Rivera said he remembered the kindness of Guslander, who along with her husband, Lyle, operated the hotel, and lifted it to prominence worldwide. She gave a returning military veteran a job, Rivera said with pride.

"Mrs. Guslander reminded me of the queen (Deborah Kapule) because she carried on traditions in the Hawaiian way," Rivera said. The resort is located on grounds that were once the home to Queen Deborah Kapule, Kaua'i's last queen and the wife of King Kaumuali'i.

Today, Rivera conducts "Blue Hawaii" weddings at the resort, in tribute to Elvis Presley. He was married aboard a flower-festooned craft that floated down a lagoon at the resort in the 1961 movie "Blue Hawaii," which boosted the fame and appeal of the resort.

Rivera's daughter, Ilima Fernandez, accompanied Rivera to the public hearing, and was ready also to voice her support for the project.

Coco Palms, LLC leaders are seeking a special management area use permit, a project development use permit, a variance permit and a Class IV Zoning permit for the 33-acre project.

The key focus of the renovation project is to recapture the nostalgia and the Polynesian character of the one-time flagship hotel of Kaua'i, according to county documents.

The owners want to keep the rural feel of the resort, noting that none of the planned buildings will be higher than that of existing coconut trees.

The owners envision a project of 103 hotel suites and 200 multi-family residential condominium units, retail shops, a spa, a museum, restaurants, office space, meeting rooms and 715 parking stalls located in the basement of condominium buildings and in a four-level parking structure.

Documents on the project submitted to the Kaua'i Planning Department also propose:

  • The multi-family residential units will be housed within five buildings, with no plans for dividing any of the rooms to accommodate more guests;

  • A four-story building with 56 condominiums will be located next to a four-level parking structure;

  • The three other four-story condominium buildings will line the hotel's entry way from Kuamo'o Road in the same location as the existing hotel buildings. Each of these three buildings will have 44 to 52 condominium units;

  • The 103 hotel suites will be located in four buildings located on the mauka side of the lagoon;

  • The hotel lobby will be constructed in the way that it looked prior to Hurricane 'Iniki;

  • An open-air restaurant and hotel suites located next to the lobby will be reconstructed to look like the original structures;

  • Plans calls for 36,800 square feet of restaurant and dining facilities, including what will make up the Seashell Restaurant; 8,600 square feet of office space, and 4,700 square feet for retail facilities, including a logo shop, museum and spa;

  • Several of the buildings that still stand are structurally sound and could have been rehabilitated. But reconstruction of the buildings was needed to elevate "any habitable" floors to comply with government flooding requirements;

  • A walking bridge will be built over Kuhio Highway, connecting the resort with the old Seashell Restaurant and Wailua Bay. The bridge would be built about 16 feet above the highway.

  • An open-air pavilion on the grounds will be used for cultural activities and events;

  • Four existing tennis courts and a pavilion will be rebuilt;

  • The 2,000-tree coconut grove, the largest in the state, will be cleaned up.

    An archeological survey done by Cultural Surveys Hawaii, Inc., in May revealed no burial sites.

    Those conducting the survey did find a "cultural layer," presumably an area used by pre-contact Hawaiians, and remains of a historic fishpond.

    The hotel originally opened on Jan. 25, 1953, with 24 rooms. Led by hoteliers Grace and Lyle Guslander, the resort expanded to 416 rooms by the mid-1970s, but the room count dropped to 393 by 1984.

    In 1985, Wailua Associates acquired the resort from the Guslander/Amfac group.

    Lester Chang, staff writer, may be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225) or mailto:lchang@pulitzer.net.

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