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Did You Know O‘ahu Has Seven Special Districts? Here’s What That Means

Get to know O‘ahu’s special districts.


Diamond Head

Photo: Eric Broder van Dyke


Occasionally, we hear about building restrictions or limitations due to special districts. There are seven on O‘ahu, most formed in the 1970s and ’80s, aimed at preserving what makes each area, well, special.


Hawai‘i Capitol Special District has height restrictions, and open space and mall rules. The area extends farther than you’d guess, from Vineyard above The Queen’s Medical Center, makai to Aloha Tower; and toward Diamond Head, from Alakea to Cooke Street. The areas we love around the Capitol, ‘Iolani Palace and Honolulu Hale, look like they do in part because of restrictions that ensure adequate lawns and open space for the public to enjoy the historical heart of our city.


Diamond Head, one of the most recognized landmarks in the world, has its own special district as well, created to preserve that special view, as well as the parklike setting around it. The core area is around Diamond Head and Kapi‘olani Park, with Diamond Head Road and Monsarrat Avenue as boundaries, where 25-foot height limits for buildings are in place. The official district is larger and stretches from ‘Elepaio on the Koko Head side, along Kīlauea and Alohea streets mauka, around Ala Wai Golf Course on the ‘Ewa side and down Kapahulu to Kalākaua. When building new residential properties in those areas, architectural limitations go beyond building heights to include roof slope and front yard size. Next time you walk, run or drive around the mountain, take a look at roof alignment and you’ll see that most align with the slope of the hillside—that’s no coincidence.


Punchbowl Special District puts height restrictions that range from zero to 100 feet in an area surrounding Punchbowl, or Pūowaina, as far as the Pali Highway and Vineyard Boulevard. A national monument and one of Hawai‘i’s most important landmarks, it was in danger of overdevelopment in the 1970s, thus the special district was created. The rules use the word “serenity” frequently and focus on preserving that feeling, as well as view planes both to and from the site.


Chinatown Special District is approximately a square bordered by Vineyard Boulevard, the canal past River Street, Nu‘uanu Avenue and Nimitz Highway. It was created to preserve the historic character that we love Chinatown for, including the low-rise urban mix of retail, office and residential properties, as well as the walkability of the area. This district has 40-foot height limits along the street; 40 feet from the street, heights max out at 80 to 230 feet.


Thomas Square Honolulu Academy of Arts Special District, created in 1995, has the Honolulu Museum of Art and Thomas Square at its heart, and includes the area two blocks surrounding them mauka, Diamond Head and ‘Ewa. Across the street, Hawai‘i Community Development Authority rules overrule the district down Ward Avenue to Kapi‘olani. Buildings surrounding the museum are limited to 25 feet in height, and the taller buildings farthest away from the museum are limited to 150 feet with specific envelope ratios. Rules regarding setbacks and lighting exist as well. Both the park and the museum are on the state and national registers of historic places.




Perhaps the largest is the Waikīkī Special Design District, which is bound by the Ala Wai, Kapahulu Avenue and the ocean. This one is by far the most complicated, divvied up into small areas with varying height limitations, with preserved view corridors and rules that supersede normal zoning regulations, making it hard to know what can and can’t be built. It was created to ensure Waikīkī stays a place prime for hospitality, welcoming to pedestrians from around the world. Miniparks, open-air lobbies and vending carts are all part of the plan.


Ever wonder how Hale‘iwa stays so cute? Indeed, the Hale‘iwa Special District helps keep it that way, with height and building restrictions that stretch from the Joseph P. Leong Highway, aka the bypass road, to just makai of the town’s main road. The special district rules are aimed at enhancing the attractiveness of the area, especially at entry points, maintaining that old plantation town feel and ensuring it remains a safe place for residents and tourists alike to spend an afternoon walking around.


Want to learn more? Maps are available online, along with descriptions and other information.




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