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Layoffs, Budget Cuts and Aloha Tower: What’s Next for Hawaii Pacific University?

A change in leadership, job cuts, a sharp jump in tuition, and faculty and staff job cuts have shaken Hawaii Pacific University, even as it embarks on an ambitious plan to develop Aloha Tower Marketplace as its new core.


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Aloha Tower’s Promise    

Hawaii Pacific University president Geoffrey Bannister is leading the school’s expansion to Aloha Tower Marketplace, which will reopen in September 2015.
Photo: Olivier Koning

Bannister arrived quietly on campus three-and-a-half years ago, spending the first few months of his term listening to faculty, students and alumni about what they’d like to see from their university. From these talks, his vision, which would eventually include Aloha Tower, began to emerge.

Students talked about a lack of gathering spaces on upper Fort Street Mall, which serves as the main campus for the university, and the nearly nonexistent university-provided student housing. Faculty lacked offices and spaces to meet with their students. And alumni didn’t feel they had a place to come home to. All talked about the less-than-desirable elements of Fort Street Mall, including a visible and sometimes confrontational homeless population.

Janessa Canilao recently graduated from HPU in May with a degree in psychology. Upon transferring to the university in September 2012 from the San Francisco Bay Area, Canilao discovered HPU was good for some things—small class sizes, caring professors with connections to the professional world, and an emphasis on real-world experience and internships. But it wasn’t good for feeling like part of a larger student body.

“A lot of students feel like there’s not really a community within HPU. Everyone just goes there for class and then leaves. No one wants to hang out in the area, it’s hard to make friends. That made my first year kind of hard,” she says.

Fort Street Mall itself is part of the problem. “There are a lot of homeless people. The area is sometimes just uncomfortable,” she says.

Similarly, Bannister recalls his first two weeks on campus, looking onto the mall from Wright’s former office across from the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace. Potential students and parents were being led on a walking tour of Fort Street Mall. The reactions convinced Bannister HPU had a real problem.

“I would watch the faces of people on the tour. You could see mothers and fathers looking around like, ‘I’m not leaving my kid here,’” Bannister says.

It was then-Honolulu Mayor Peter Carlisle who first recommended in 2011 the university take over the struggling Aloha Tower. At that stage, the state had already signed an agreement with a California developer, who then approached HPU about participating in the redevelopment. The university agreed, but required a buyout provision in case it didn’t agree with the direction of the project. Together they acquired Aloha Tower for $14 million.

For Bannister, Aloha Tower held the promise of finally realizing a permanent and identifiable location for HPU in the heart of downtown Honolulu. For decades, the university has been the largest leaseholder downtown, renting space in as many as eight different buildings.

“It was a very smart idea to lease space in the downtown area, but it’s meant that we couldn’t afford to invest in creating specialized facilities that a university needs,” Bannister says, citing the university’s need for student common spaces and facilities for its athletes.

In addition to filling the university’s needs for student facilities, “we also see (Aloha Tower) as a gathering place for the city. We see it as a center for the university, but it’s also a spot to see athletic events, community events, attend children’s events on the weekends—all sorts of activities that will connect HPU to the city,” Bannister says.

Soon after acquiring the marketplace, though, the university was forced to ditch its partner. The developer, Bannister says, planned to use the space as a live concert, nightlife and events venue that would include “heavy alcohol consumption.”
“In our view, (those plans) were not consistent with our interests or the neighborhood’s interest, compared to something more family-oriented,” Bannister says.

For HPU, the Aloha Tower redevelopment is a coup, more than doubling its dormitory space by adding at least 270 beds to the second floor of the marketplace. The university currently has 210 beds in its aging dormitories on the Hawaii Loa campus, which are primarily used for first-year Mainland and international students. Without available housing, HPU students rent university-sponsored apartments downtown or at the edge of Waikiki, or otherwise fend for themselves in Honolulu’s tight rental market. Bannister readily admits Aloha Tower doesn’t solve the university’s housing problem, but it represents a step forward.

The 160,000-square-foot, redeveloped Aloha Tower would also include a fitness center, auditorium space for concerts and public lectures, classrooms, a student center and common areas for HPU’s student organizations. More than 84,000 square feet would be dedicated to retail and entertainment vendors, which would include current tenants Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant and Hooters Restaurant. The university has announced at least one new tenant, Barnes & Noble, which will serve as both the university bookstore and a mass retailer for the general public.

John Hart, professor of communications at HPU, the only faculty member who was willing to comment on the record for this story, says he believes Aloha Tower will usher in a new era for HPU, after years of status quo under former president Wright.

“A lot of people thought an upgrade in physical plant wasn’t necessary,” Hart says. “But if you think about walking a parent onto Fort Street Mall and saying, ‘Your child is going to go to school here,’ versus walking that parent into Aloha Tower, I think you’re going to get a very different reaction. And it’s one we need to have in order to stay competitive.”

The university has long had an issue with providing space for its athletic teams. Part of the university’s original plans for Aloha Tower included renovating space at Pier 10 to create an athletics facility for the university’s NCAA Division II men’s and women’s teams. But NCAA space regulations forced the university to scrap its plans.

Vince Baldemor, executive director of athletics, says the university’s teams borrow and rent space across the island. “We go everywhere from Waipahu to Waikiki to Kaneohe for practice. For games, we rent everywhere in-between,” Baldemor says.

“Ideally, one of the things we would like to build is a home base, somewhere student athletes can call home and train and practice.”

HPU is hoping its new model for Aloha Tower, as part university campus, part community gathering place, and part shopping and entertainment center will finally mean success for a development that has struggled since its inception.

When Aloha Tower Marketplace was first conceived in the 1980s under then-Gov. George Ariyoshi, it was envisioned to include a retail marketplace, an office building, condominiums, a hotel and underground parking. But, in the early 1990s, only the marketplace was built. Because the rest of the development was not fully realized, many say Aloha Tower Marketplace struggled and foundered.

Stephany Sofos, a Honolulu real estate broker and appraiser, says a college campus isn’t necessarily Aloha Tower’s “highest and best use.”

“You don’t put dormitories on oceanfront property,” Sofos says. “Its highest and best use would be retail, but it was never able to work because it was designed as a festival marketplace. Festival marketplaces need something to support them, something to feed them, like hotels or office towers.”

Only festival marketplaces with established feeders end up doing well, Sofos says. “This center never had a chance,” she says.


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