The Worst Neighbor on the Block: Genshiro Kawamoto
The eccentric billionaire ends his dramatic reign over Kahala Avenue.
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As eccentric billionaires tend to be, Kawamoto was full of surprises. In 1988 he bought the former Portlock estate of industrialist Henry Kaiser for $42.5 million—at the time the highest price paid for a house in the U.S. Six years later, declaring that Bishop Estate, the leaseholder, wanted too much money for the fee interest on the property, he simply walked away from the house, surrendering the keys and swallowing the loss.
There were petty incidents, like in 2001, when he tore up the driveway that two of his neighbors used in Kahaluu and posted a “no trespassing” sign. It was Christmas Eve.
There were incidents that sent shockwaves through entire communities. In 2002, he evicted residents from 800 homes in Hawaii and California (where he actually had built housing), initially giving tenants just 30 days notice, but later extending that by 60 days. The uproar over the mass evictions led California to strengthen its tenants-rights laws.
In Hawaii, the evictions preceded the mass sell-off of his residential properties, many of which had fallen into disrepair. It also marked the beginning of his investments along Kahala Avenue.
By 2006, Kawamoto's presence along Kahala Avenue had become so distressing to his neighbors that the Waialae-Kahala Neighborhood Board formed a blighted-properties committee. It may as well have been called the Genshiro Kawamoto Committee. “What to do about Kawamoto” was a constant topic of discussion. Neighbors considered a lawsuit, but decided that taking on a billionaire with advanced legal representation would be prohibitively expensive. They talked about approaching the Japanese Consulate, and they considered protesting during the Sony Open. But mostly, they railed against the City and County of Honolulu for not cracking down harder on Kawamoto for numerous code violations.
Constant pressure from Kahala residents eventually led the Honolulu City Council to create a new property blight law, dubbed the Kawamoto Bill, which raised the fine for unresolved property neglect violations from $1,000 a day to $5,000 a day. It’s unclear if that got Kawamoto’s attention or whether the timing was coincidental, but the month after the fines went into effect, Alexander & Baldwin announced it had bought Kawamoto’s properties.
Not everyone on Kahala Avenue was happy to see Kawamoto go. For the three native Hawaiian families house-sitting in Kahala, it was Kawamoto who was the angel.
“Whatever anybody else has against him, we don’t see it like that,” says Trisha Kahale, who was 14 when her mother and four sisters moved from a homeless shelter in Kalaeloa to the four-bedroom, two-story colonial home along Kahala Avenue. “He let us live here, in a place like this. He let us live here freely, however we wanted to. He never bothered us. We could party here and he wouldn’t even grumble.”
Seventeen people live at the Kahales’ residence now, including grandchildren and significant others. They and the other Hawaiian families have until March 1 to move out, and Alexander & Baldwin has put them in touch with a social service agency to help relocate them.
Kahale says the use of the house helped the family get on its feet. “Everybody and their other halves are more stable now and more able to afford their own stuffs,” she says. “Even if it’s bad we do have to make it so short in Kahala, we still enjoyed it while it lasted.”
Kawamoto could not be reached for this story, but HONOLULU Magazine got an exclusive interview with him in 2007, when he was happily still talking about his Kahala Avenue Mission. At the time, he planned to put Hawaiian families in at least eight homes.
“So the eight families, say they have 50 relatives and friends each, that will bring another 400 people to visit Kahala Avenue and have parties,” he said. “I want that community of 400 to play on the beach. That’s what I really wanted. If every weekend, a couple of hundred people visit the families and have fun, the project will be successful.”
When we asked Kawamoto what drives his Hawaii real estate decisions, he said: “I don’t actually think of what I do as a business. It’s a game. If there’s something I’m interested in, I just do it. Maybe you want to ask me why I’m giving away so many millions now on Kahala Avenue and not asking for anything back—do you want to ask me?”
We did, and so—after Kawamoto explained that he only uses his private money in Hawaii, never his business’ money—he said: “The whole point of the homeless people is because I wanted to do something fun with the money. The hundreds of millions don’t really matter to me. I just want the families to be happy and have fun.”
When we asked him about his hobbies, he said he enjoys gardening and “styling and decorating” his houses. Then he said this: “Maybe you can say Kahala Avenue is my hobby, too. Instead of styling a house, I’m styling a town. I’m styling Kahala Avenue.”
Now, a decade after his grand makeover project began, Kahala Avenue is free to return to its original style.
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