Can a Robot Save Kaimuki?

A bustling neighborhood tries to solve its perpetual parking shortage.


Kaimuki—it’s one of Honolulu’s hipper ’hoods, but anyone who’s frequented the place knows that finding parking can be an exercise in frustration. It’s not just an inconvenience for shoppers and diners. The shortage of parking stalls threatens to drive area businesses into stagnation.

“Everyone is talking about economic growth, but we can’t go after new customers and can’t maintain our old customers because the parking is just maxed out,” says DJ Colbert, owner of Prosperity Corner.

What is anyone doing about it? The neighborhood board and other community groups have talked about the problem for years. Last September, city consultant Urban Works Inc. released a 96-page report on Kaimuki’s parking woes, complete with long- and short-term recommendations for improving the municipal lots near the top of Waialae Avenue that constitute the bulk of the area’s parking.

After Mufi Hannemann’s mayoral victory, though, some Kaimuki community members feared that his cost-cutting philosophies would doom the parking plan to perpetual limbo. Luckily, it seems to have escaped that fate.

Bill Brennan, press secretary to the mayor, says the city will call for a bid by this summer to convert the municipal lots into attended parking, with other improvements such as re-striped stalls. “The concession operation would have a higher fee rate for parking in excess of three hours, which would hopefully reduce the number of long-term parkers and open up stalls for short term business customers,” Brennan says.

Photo: Michael Keany

Progress is good, but no one is celebrating yet. It’s debatable how much of a difference the municipal lot improvements will make. Re-striping adds only a few spaces, and the incentives for short-term parking may simply push the long-term parkers, most of them employees of local businesses, into the surrounding neighborhood streets.

Ginny Meade, executive director of the Greater East Honolulu Community Alliance, says, “It’s a conundrum. If we discourage employees from parking there, where are they going to go?”

What Kaimuki really needs is simple: more parking spaces. One long-term recommendation by Urban Works has captured the community’s imagination: a robotic parking garage, to be built behind the municipal lot near Harding and 11th Avenues.

Instead of self-parking, motorists would entrust their cars to a fully automated system of lifts and shuttles that would pack vehicles like sardines into a secure, multistory building. Such a robot parking garage could fit three times as many cars as a comparably sized conventional garage.

Mike Abe, chair of the Kaimuki Neighborhood Board, says he’s trying to muster support for the futuristic concept, which is already being used in New Jersey. “The beauty of it is that you could do it on a small footprint, and it wouldn’t completely disrupt the existing municipal parking lot,” Abe says. “Everyone I’ve talked to has said it sounds like a good idea.”

Of course, such a Jetson-like solution would take money, which is, as always, in short supply. Brennan says it’s premature to talk about sending in the robot garages to rescue Kaimuki. For now, shoppers may have to resign themselves to circling the block, in search of the perfect parking space.