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Who Owns O‘ahu?

Mystery buyers, high fliers and all those LLCs—we take a look at who’s claiming stakes on O‘ahu.


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Photo: Cameron Brooks 


Depending on where you stand, O‘ahu is Eden, a culture clash, a land grab, a Game of Thrones, a pawn of empire and a jewel in the crown of a Native Hawaiian nation.


It’s also a great place to live, maybe the best in the world. And that’s our problem. Sought-after, beloved O‘ahu is under pressure to house us. And we’re under pressure to hang onto our pieces of her—unless we don’t have a piece. Then we’re faced with prowling the rapidly overheating real estate market, our purchasing power growing lighter by the day. 


Under the circumstances, it’s no wonder we’re wondering who we’re up against. Mystery traders and straw buyers and Russians? We’ve all heard the stories. And don’t let anyone tell you the bogeyman is all in your head—you may get a pachinko parlor tycoon for a neighbor. Or an investor who named his yacht “Gangster’s Mistress” in Bulgarian. (Want to guess how much of industrial O‘ahu his company controls?)


Then there are the five members of the board of directors of Au Bon Pain and the purveyors of gold bullion.  


Don’t get us wrong: We like croissants. And we love gold bullion. But the rapid increase of residential properties purchased by shell corporations poses its own set of problems. 


Who owns O‘ahu? This year we found ourselves asking that question a lot. Because things feel different, somehow. We’re unquestionably seeing a number of trend lines converging. We feel it viscerally sitting in traffic gridlock, seeing cranes everywhere (16 of them right now on O‘ahu, according to the Rider Levett Bucknall North American Crane Index), reading about escalating housing prices driven by both local and foreign demand. At times it feels as though the ’80s are breaking out all over again. Sometimes it feels as if Hawai‘i is slipping away, into the hands of others.


But is that true? Anecdotal evidence and talking story only take us so far. What does the data say? What do the experts say—the government officials who handle permits and planning, the real estate agents who stoke as well as surf the sales trends, the hotel executives, the well-connected kama‘āina and the Native Hawaiians, including the representatives of the land trusts?

Who owns O‘ahu? That’s the question HONOLULU set out to answer. What we found may surprise you.


The New Big Five Who Own The Most Land 

85,905 acres including 4,692 acres under the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands

60,080 acres

47,985 acres

30,000 acres

18,470 acres

Source: DBEDT 2013; Refects 2014 Castle & Cooke activity.


We know who the big players are. Although four familiar plantation names (Amfac, C. Brewer, Damon and Theo Davies) made an exit from our listing of the Top 40 state landowners compiled by this magazine in its May 1985 issue, the group is remarkably unchanged from the Top 20 listing from the City Department of Permitting and Planning (DPP) in 2013.


That two of the original Big Five, Castle & Cooke and James Campbell Company LLC (3,250 acres), still carry on today in some form is a reminder of Hawai‘i’s relatively short history of private-property ownership, which sprang into existence in 1840, when a new Kingdom of Hawai‘i constitution declared all land was held in common by the people and their chiefs, with the king as trustee. Consolidated landownership has been a hallmark of Hawai‘i ever since.



“Ownership also makes one think of ‘control.’ In this state one can legally own land, but actually doing anything constructive or entrepreneurial requires the consent and involvement of a wide variety of stakeholders. The best landowners spend an extraordinary amount of time developing productive relationships with all the community stakeholders. So, who controls O‘ahu? We all do!”—Charles Kelley Jr., chairman, Outrigger Enterprises Inc. 


Native Hawaiians 

What Do You Mean, “Own”? 

“No one owns O‘ahu,” says Office of Hawaiian Affairs CEO Kamana‘opono Crabbe. “No one owns these lands.” 


Crabbe works in offices on North Nimitz Highway, not far from the 200-acre site of OHA’s own future Kaka‘ako development. “Even though we live in the 21st century, with capitalism as the main driver of our economy and our lifestyle,” he says, “we have an ancient perspective toward the land—that we can never own it, we can only manage and care for it.”


The questions Native Hawaiians face are ones that can help all of us on the island address our fears, responsibilities—and culpability. “How do we share space, how do we share resources, while struggling to preserve the sacred spaces, the pristine environment?” he asks. “What we’re seeing is corporations becoming monopolies and driving prices up and driving inflation up. The Hawaiian dream of a local-born person here, of having their own house where their parents grew up, is becoming unrealistic.”


“We have lost that sense of neighborhood,” he adds, “that relationship with each other. We don’t want to be the Manhattan of Asia. We shouldn‘t be building in Ho‘opili or Koa Ridge. We should be investing in our food security with diversified farming, investing in ourselves with education so we can develop our own industry.”


For OHA and Native Hawaiians, the coming year will bring a watershed moment in nation-building. “If we’re successful,” Crabbe says, “we will elect delegates to engage in a convention where we set out a future pathway for self-determination. If our community agrees to open negotiations with the government to return those lands with which we will establish ourselves as a new nation, that will have a ripple effect on our economy and our future—not to interrupt or disrupt, but to come to some sort of resolution as to our place in Hawai‘i.” 


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Honolulu Magazine August 2020