Editor's Page: Building Kapolei

Most people who live in Kapolei don’t work in Kapolei—but would really like to. How can we help?


Photo by: Linny Morris

I was meeting with a civic group in Kapolei when someone asked me if I thought Kapolei had a chance of developing into a full-featured city. I had just been describing the joys of living in the Ala Moana area, where I can walk to a major shopping center by day, great restaurants in the evening, a jazz club at night, even to work, if I weren’t so lazy.

Would Kapolei ever be like that? was the question. In the moment, I joked that all the “real” cities like New York or Paris—filled with industry, culture and art as well as homes and parks—were shaped by war, greed, crime, exploitation, plague, power and barely constrained chaos. Can you master-plan a 21st-century American city into existence, with well-ordered decency included in the themed architecture, and ever expect it to have the variety that comes with messier origins?

For example, forget the New York of today, a city of 8.2 million. Imagine New York in 1800, when it was the largest city in the nation with a population of just 60,515. A city directory from that year listed more than 1,100 businesses in New York, and no wonder; one-third of America’s overseas trade went through the city, requiring everything from shipbuilders to insurance companies.

From 1990 to 2009, Kapolei’s population doubled to 84,000. Okay, it’s still not fair to compare Kapolei to an even smaller city when that city happens to be a national nexus of business and industry. But that does point to the real difference between the two—jobs. People followed the money—not the housing—to early New York or Honolulu. Kapolei was meant to be a job center that would solve Oahu’s traffic woes by moving business to the west side, but it’s the suburban side that has the momentum.

There are only 28,000 jobs in Kapolei, many of them jobs that serve the community itself. Other stats, from Kapolei Property Development, Inc.:

• 22 percent of Kapolei residents work in Kapolei.
• 78 percent of Kapolei residents who don’t work in Kapolei would like to work in Kapolei.
• Every job in Kapolei potentially takes one car out of the Leeward/Honolulu gridlock.

No one in Kapolei is doing anything wrong; as “Exploring Kapolei” on page 40 shows, there’s a lot of life, new business and potential. But if we were serious about moving business out west, we wouldn’t spend any money on transportation out of west and central Oahu into town; we’d spend it on moving businesses to Kapolei. I’ve noted before that, for the $5 billion price of rail, we could literally bribe 5,000 businesses with $1 million, tax-free, each, to move their operations to Kapolei. Instant city!

Rail is a lightning rod, so I’ll say this: It doesn’t matter if we spent the $5 billion on triple-decked freeways from Kapolei to Waikiki—it would be the same bizarre disconnect. There are people stuck in traffic who don’t want to be. There are empty fields in Kapolei ready and waiting for apartment buildings, office towers and jazz clubs. There is apparently $5 billion worth of willpower do something—why not invest in the plan Oahu has? Invest in people and businesses first, then Kapolei will do for Honolulu what it was meant to do, and it will become, for its own citizens, the “real” city they’re trying to build. Minus the centuries of chaos.



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Honolulu Magazine June 2020
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