On the Waterfront
Thirty-six acres of prime public lands in Kaka'ako could undergo a radical change. But not if some concerned citizens can help it
By Ronna Bolante
Most Ala Moana-Kaka'ako Neighbor Board meetings don't draw even a dozen attendees. But on a sticky Tuesday evening in November, the meeting room at Makiki Christian Church is crammed with at least 70 people who wanted to be heard.
The last time the board saw this kind of turnout was when Wal-Mart announced it would open a store on Ke'eaumoku Street and, before that, when the state decided to build its convention center on Atkinson Drive.
This time, it's because, after three decades of flawed ideas and false starts, the Hawai'i Community Development Authority has come up with what it considers to be the best plan yet for Honolulu's last prime piece of developable waterfrontÑ36.5 acres 'ewa of Ala Moana Beach Park. And except for a handful of attendees, no one at this meeting seems happy about it.
Neighborhood residents, surfers and park users watch impassively as Stanley Kuriyama unfolds a poster-size rendering. He's the vice president of Alexander & Baldwin's commercial properties division, the company chosen by the state to develop the area. Almost everyone at the meeting has already seen the $650 million planÑa retail complex spanning one end of Kewalo Basin; a farmer's market; a trio of condominium "pods," or 20-story high-rise buildings surrounded by low-rise ones; a 400-foot pedestrian bridge spanning the mouth of the harbor; a tent-like structure at Kewalo Basin Park and a Hawaiian cultural center near Point Panic.
Since introducing the plan in September, A&B has met with numerous community groups and citizens. The company understands their concerns, Kuriyama assures the crowd, and wants to work with them. With a black marker, he circles the areas where A&B is willing to budge: Kewalo Basin Park could be left alone, the pedestrian bridge could go completely and the condominium complex, the most worrisome aspect of the project, could be scaled down.
Respected kumu hula Vicky Holt Takamine, who served as a consultant to A&B on the Hawaiian cultural center, stands up. "When A&B told me about this plan, I said, 'If it's going to be like the Polynesian Cultural Center, I'm not interested.'" Takamine tells the audience. "But this one will be authentic, a public place where halau can practice, where kupuna can come make lei, where children can learn about Hawaiian language and culture."
Surfer Jason Sakai shoots up from his chair. He represents Friends of Kewalo Basin, a group of 1,000 members who've raised concerns over the development.
"I'm all for a Hawaiian cultural center, but it's quite naive to believe that a thousand units and that shopping complex are not gonna affect the area and bring more crowds and traffic," Sakai says, pointing angrily at the rendering across the room. "It's not going to be the cultural center you think it's gonna be."
Despite board chairman John Breinich's pleas to keep comments short, the crowd continues to fire questions and accusations at Kuriyama and Daniel Dinell, the executive director of the HCDA. A strict time limit on the length of these meetingsÑtwo hoursÑis the only reason this fight doesn't drag on all night.
Where Did This Plan Come From?
This isn't the first time Honolulu residents have clashed over development on this state-owned property. In the late '90s, businessman D.G. "Andy" Anderson proposed a Ferris-wheel-centered commercial complex, an idea that the HCDA quickly dropped when the public rallied against a mini-Disneyland on their waterfront. Soon after, a Japanese construction company offered to build a super-size aquarium, an idea pushed by then-Gov. Ben Cayetano.
Ironically, the object of this particular land battle isn't exactly the most attractive property on the island, even though it sits on the ocean. These 36.5 acres are now home to city dump trucks, badly maintained docks, an old shipyard and rusty warehouses occupied by light-industrial concerns. No one lives there; few work there. If you've driven to John Dominis for Sunday brunch, you know exactly where this is.
In 1976, the state Legislature created the HCDA as a semiautonomous agency to redevelop Kaka'ako. The district includes 670 acres bounded by Pi'ikoi, King and Punchbowl streets and Ala Moana Boulevard, as well as the waterfront between Honolulu Harbor's Pier 4 and Kewalo Basin.
"The Legislature saw that there were areas of the state that were underutilized and could be subject to blight and recognized Kaka'ako as needing a planning agency," Dinell says. "We were created for two purposes: economic redevelopment and enhancing and improving the quality of life for Hawai'i's people."
How the area looks today is largely due to the HCDA's efforts. To date, the authority has spent more than $208 million to improve infrastructure in Kaka'ako, created 1,388 below-market-priced housing units and added more than 40 acres of park space. These kinds of investments have attracted more than $2 billion in private and public development to Kaka'ako, such as the redevelopment of the Victoria Ward retail complex.
High-rise condominiums, such as Hokua and Ko'olani, have sprung up on the mauka side of Ala Moana Boulevard. The city's former incinerator now houses the Children's Discovery Center; its ashes are sealed under the grassy slopes of Kaka'ako Waterfront Park.
Last year, the University of Hawai'i opened its medical school, meant to serve as a catalyst for the budding biotechnology industry in the Islands, and plans to break ground on its new Cancer Research Center just 'Ewa of the facility. Kamehameha Schools has also announced plans to develop a $200 million life sciences center nearby.
These gleaming new buildings have sprouted up around what some have dubbed "an industrial wasteland," or the 36.5 acres now being considered for development. Understandably, you'd be hard-pressed to find a Honolulu resident who doesn't want to see the area redeveloped.
But redeveloped into what, exactly?
Rumble on the Waterfront
In January 2005, the HCDA put out a call for proposals to redevelop and manage Kaka'ako Makai. The request for proposals, or RFP, offered loose guidelinesÑ500,000 square feet of public and commercial space, 250,000 square feet of entertainment and retail, "possible residential uses" and parking.
Fifteen international and local teams submitted proposals, which the HCDA narrowed down to a short list of fourÑA&B, Victoria Ward Ltd., Stanford Carr Development and Kewalo Nui Partners.
"All four plans were well thought out," Dinell says. "But A&B's plan was particularly strong, with its sensitivity to the Hawaiian sense of place, the preservation and enhancement of open space and not maximizing the buildable area. The board probably saw it as the most balanced of the four."
In fact, the three other developers also proposed high-rise condos, some much closer to the ocean than those in A&B's design. Two proposed hotels.
But when the HCDA announced its plan for Kaka'ako Makai last September, angry protests broke out. Surfers, park users, fishermen, small-business owners and neighborhood residents banded together to stop the development.
"After hearing about this development and how it would change the character of the park, I couldn't let that happen without a fight," says Honolulu Fire Capt. Ronald Iwami, president of the Friends of Kewalo Basin. He has surfed in the area for nearly 40 years. "I talked to my fellow surfers and told them, 'We can't just sit on our okoles and let it happen.'"
In November, the group organized a rally at Kewalo Basin Park, drawing more than 150 people. Even politicians such as House Speaker Calvin Say, state Rep. Bev Harbin and councilman Rod Tam joined the protest.
They presented a laundry list of complaintsÑthat the development would limit public access to the shoreline, add more traffic to an already congested area and alter the atmosphere of a laid-back surf spot and picnic area.
But none of the aspects of the development riled these protesters more than the residential project. Under the original proposal, A&B offered to pay the state $50 million to buy 7.5 acres near the 'Ewa end of Kewalo Basin, where the company planned to construct three high-rise condominiums. A&B would lease and manage the surrounding areas from the state at $600,000 a year, and would pay to build more public amenities, such as added park space, a hula amphitheater and a retail complex.
Still, many protesters decried the sale of public lands for private residential development, regardless of the other benefits promised. "These are public lands, for all the public to enjoy, and they shouldn't be reserved for individual private landowners," says bodysurfer Michael Kliks, who represents another park advocacy group, Hui O Malama Kaka'ako Paka.
Since its inception, HCDA has always had the power to sell and lease the lands it oversees, Dinell says. The authority has developed and sold fee simple condos on public lands at least once before. In the mid-'90s, HCDA partnered with First Hawaiian Bank to develop Honuakaha, a Queen Street project that offered 93 below-market-priced condominiums in addition to 150 rentals for seniors.
"I want to be clear: Selling state land isn't a simple decision, nor do we always have the same answer," Dinell says. "In this case, what we're trying to achieve is a vibrant, mixed-use community. We're looking to maximize the state's return, although I need to point out that we measure that return in terms of dollars, as well as the public benefit, which is harder to quantify."
What's become apparent during HCDA's 30-year campaign to revitalize the area is that the state doesn't have the means to finance the redevelopment of Kaka'ako Makai by itself. It needs help from the private sector. And a private developer won't take on a project unless there's financial incentive.
"The public amenities alone would cost $150 million to $200 million," says HCDA board member Ted Liu, director of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. "We could wait for the Legislature to fund that, although it's been 30 years since it promised to do something with the waterfront. To get the private sector to invest in Kaka'ako, it needs an economic driver. I don't care which developer you talk to, residential development is necessary to access that private investment."
It seemed less likely that any developer would want to build and sell condos on land it didn't own, considering the much stronger demand for fee simple residential units over leasehold ones, Liu says.
Aside from the sale of state land, the condos themselves have troubled some community groups, such as Friends of Kewalo. They contend that these luxury condos will be priced beyond the reach of most middle-class workers in Hawai'i, let alone those earning lower incomes. The project could attract more speculators and Mainland second-home buyers to Honolulu's already tight housing market.
But just like most condos built in Kaka'ako, this residential project must follow HCDA's "affordable housing" rules, which require 20 percent of all units to sell below market value, Dinell says. These condos would need to be affordable for applicants earning less than 140 percent of the state's median family income, pricing one- and two-bedroom units at $190,000 and $230,000, respectively. Sales of the market-priced condos, which could start at $600,000, would help subsidize the other units.
A&B won't see excessive profits from these condo sales, Liu notes. The company's proposal includes a profit-sharing agreement with the state.
"I'm not trying to fool anyone; we're not trying to solve O'ahu's affordable housing problem," A&B vice president Kuriyama says. "We do want this to be as affordable to as large a population as possible. There will be a mix of units, below and above market price. But there are things we can do to ensure local people get a first crack at them."
There are economic and social advantages for A&B to sell these units to local residents who actually intend to live in them, rather than to second-home buyers from the Mainland. Without them, the entire development could suffer from the same lack of critical mass that has plagued Aloha Tower Marketplace.
"From an economic standpoint, it's really necessary to create that 'live, work and play' environment to activate the area at nighttime and on weekends," Wright says. "We want people to use the parks, to shop at the retail complex, to dine at these restaurants. It wouldn't benefit us to have Mainland owners who live in their condos only half the year."
The project could be a major step in "smart-growth" planning for Honolulu, notes Sen. Fred Hemmings, one of the few legislators to publicly support the development. These condos could draw buyers now living in the suburbs, potentially cutting down on the number of commuters making their way from west or east O'ahu to their jobs in urban Honolulu.
Consider Hokua, one of A&B's investment properties just kitty corner from the proposed development, where more than 70 percent of buyers are local residents, Wright notes. With proper safeguards, that percentage could increase with this Kaka'ako Makai development. Ideally, this project would house young professionals, empty nesters as well as staff from the UH medical school and Kamehameha Schools' planned life sciences center, all of whom would find every convenienceÑparks, shops and restaurantsÑwithin walking distance of their homes and offices.
The Battle Over Identity
If A&B and the HCDA can easily address these public concerns, then what exactly is this fight about? It's not just about big buildings, Iwami says. It's the fear that these changes will turn Kaka'ako Makai into an enclave for the wealthy, driving away people who've been using the park for years.
"Public access isn't just about parking," Iwami says. "If they develop this, we're not gonna feel welcome. Then where are we gonna go on the south shore? Ala Moana is packed already. Cannot go Waikiki; we lost that place a long time ago. Kewalo's is going to turn into an extension of Waikiki. The mana will not be the same."
Not everyone agrees. Supporters of the project, such as kumu hula Takamine and Peter Apo, head of the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association, feel that the hundreds of millions in improvements will make up for the sale of 7.5 acres of state-owned waterfront.
"I'm not pushing for condos, but if that's the price we have to pay for all the other goodies they're putting in, it's worth the tradeoff," says C. Richard Fassler, a Manoa resident who recently purchased a condo in the area.
Hemmings agrees. "I got a call from a surfer who said, 'We don't want a lot of new people here. We want to keep it the way is is.' That's very selfish" he says. "The way it is now is derelict buildings that are vestiges of an old dump. The city deserves better."
But opponents of the project, such as Iwami, won't back down. Selling state land, especially on prime oceanfront, is not worth it, even if it means living with the existing warehouses, chain-link fences and dump trucks that occupy the area now.
"Once we sell this land, it's history," Iwami says. "Your kids and our kids cannot go on that land anymore. It's lost forever."
The Friends of Kewalo Basin have offered up their own vision for the 36.5 acres of Kaka'ako Makai: converting the entire perimeter of the harbor into a public park and replacing the planned condo development with light retailÑsuch as a farmer's market and local-style restaurantsÑand a town center for community gatherings. This way, Iwami explains, the public can enjoy every square foot of the entire area.
The counter proposal is unrealistic, Liu says. The state can't pay for a new park, let alone the cost of maintaining it. Kaka'ako Waterfront Park, for instance, costs $1 million annually to maintain. Even then, the large park is barely used, especially compared with Ala Moana Beach Park just down the road. In order to become a round-the-clock gathering place, Kaka'ako Makai needs more than just grass and benches to attract people.
A&B has tried to meet opponents halfway. After holding more than weekly meetings with concerned community members, the company scaled down its original proposal last month, scrapping all construction at Kewalo Basin Park, adding more parking at Point Panic, removing the controversial pedestrian bridge and taking out one of the three condominium complexes.
Barring opposition, construction, a seven-year process, could start by the end of this year.
But all this compromising might not be enough. Amid mounting concerns, the HCDA has already postponed signing a letter of intent with A&B from the 19th of this month to February. The fight over Kaka'ako Makai could become a hot-button issue in this year's legislative session, which opens this month. It's also the start of an election year, in which many lawmakers' seats are up for grabs.
The two legislators representing Kaka'ako, Rep. Bev Harbin and Sen. Gordon Trimble, both oppose the project. Harbin plans to introduce a bill to take away the HCDA's power to sell state lands.
House Speaker Calvin Say has raised his own concerns about the project, arguing that some of these lands should be set aside for more life sciences facilities, if Kaka'ako truly is to become the hub of this nascent industry in Hawai'i.
"The Legislature has the final say," stresses Say. "We could even rescind A&B's agreement with the HCDA. I'm not going to go as far as to say that, but we have to listen to the general public. Most of us would like to keep the land in perpetuity."
DBEDT director Liu acknowledges that legislators could easily put an end to the project. "If the legislators do kill this plan, there's nothing the governor's administration or the HCDA board can do about it," he says. "But if we back out of this plan with A&B, what developer will want to work with the state then? I hope legislators will answer the question: What happens to Kaka'ako now? What are our alternatives?'"
If the mindset of the legislators' is any indication, those answers might not come anytime soon.
"It's taken us 29 years to bring Kaka'ako to this point, it won't have any impact on the state to wait 29 more," says Say.