Afterthoughts: Fantasy Redeveloping

A moratorium on development would force us to remake our structures, rather than devour more land.

Photo: Linny Morris

There’s been a lot of discussion about Oahu development lately, with D.G. “Andy” Anderson proposing to buy city park land and turn it into an 80-room hotel on the North Shore; and Kyo-Ya’s attempt to expand the Princess Kaiulani and Moana Surfrider hotels in Waikiki, asking for variances on zoning rules that have for 30 years regulated height, density and setback requirements.

Oahu is peppered with older buildings, from ramshackle single-family homes and apartments long past their prime, to callously neglected, historical Chinatown storefronts. The land under these buildings hasn’t been grass or trees for decades, if not centuries. We should consider this our growth frontier, rather than eyeing every piece of agricultural land, every triangle of green space or sliver of open sky.  

I have this fantasy that I run for high office and pass a law—let’s call it No More Footprints. It states, simply, that nothing new can be built until all the existing structures are redone. Whether people want homes, hotel, retail or business spaces, developers have to either improve on an existing building, or tear down what’s there and start over on the same lot.

It can be done: real-life examples include Vanguard Lofts, which created urban housing out of the shell of a 1950’s office building, and Capitol Place, which turned a parking lot into an apartment building. It’s the opposite of sprawl; developers can’t go anywhere but into the places we’ve already paved over, and rethink them. It’s a radically different approach than, “How many new homes can we fit onto Koa Ridge?”

Illustration: Jing Jing Tsong

It’s also better than letting buildings crumble, waiting so long for the perfect tenant or master neighborhood plan that the structures become useless. Sometimes when I’m driving around town, I mentally restore Fisherman’s Wharf, in Kakaako, to its 1952 glory, with a shiver-me-timbers nautical theme and an enormous fish tank. I make sure the pay phone in the giant clam shell only takes dimes. I plan the menu: Pigs in blankets, calamari rings and mashed-potato volcanoes, and stiff drinks, like highballs and whiskey sours. I’ll hire a waitress named Dot, and order a huge supply of maraschino cherries.

Or the Ala Moana Pump Station, a bluestone building from 1900. It’s languishing in reality but imaginary mogul that I am, I sweep in and turn it into a hot nightclub, like the Limelight in New York City, which operated in an old Episcopal Church. Then I broker a deal with California Pizza Kitchen to lease the space across from Honolulu Harbor, where Palomino used to be. CPK outposts seem to need a lot of space, and there’s already a pizza oven. (I can’t believe this transaction hasn’t happened in the real world.)

In our November issue, we covered the 1950’s Princess Victoria Kamamalu Building, on the corner of King and Richards Streets. The state gutted it, and it’s now a safe shell, but the state doesn’t have the funds to go any further. How amazing would it be to turn that into some one-bedroom apartments, so people can roll out of bed and walk to work downtown? There’s a lot of talk about affordable housing and reducing the number of cars on the road, well, let’s make it happen.

There are so many buildings waiting to be loved and used. Why not start there?                           

For more of Wagner’s writing, see her online column, “Guilty Pleasures.".