How Tall Can a Honolulu Building Be? It Depends…

Kakaako became HCDA’s first Community Development District when the Authority was formed, in 1976.

Illustration: Gary Saito

Some people are nervously watching the skies, not for UFOs, but for very tall buildings. Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s announcement of a 650-foot high-rise for Kakaako last May, combined with plans for 20 high-rise condos to be built in Kakaako in coming years, has reignited concerns about building height limits. Even architects think the rules are unclear and some of them, as well as residents and legislators, worry that height limits aren’t consistently enforced.

First off, while it’s commonly believed that the height limit is 400 feet, the reality is that there are as many as 10 to 15 height limits on Oahu, depending on the zoning for a given area, ranging from 25 feet in residential neighborhoods to 400 feet or more. But, explains architect Scott R. Wilson, chair of American Institute of Architects (AIA) Honolulu’s Regional and Urban Design Committee, zoning changes in a neighborhood can change height limits, and there are seven Special Design Districts on Oahu, each with its own height limits, resulting in a patchwork of plans.

One such district, Waikiki, even has a graduated set of limits, from 220 feet at the Diamond Head end to 350 feet at the Ala Moana end. The 350-foot limit is consistent with downtown Honolulu’s limit, though there are exceptions there, too, such as First Hawaiian Center, the Islands’ tallest building at 429 feet.

Why do height limits top out at about 350 to 400 feet? “City planners wanted to ensure that Diamond Head was not hidden or overwhelmed by buildings,” explains Wilson. “So they chose a height limit that was just under half its (roughly) 800-foot height.”

The City and County of Honolulu sets height limits everywhere on Oahu except in fast-growing Kakaako, where the state’s Hawaii Community Development Authority (HCDA) has the final say on zoning and height limits. The HCDA has an ambitious, pedestrian- and transit-friendly urban plan with height and setback limits, but residents are concerned the HCDA is too willing to grant developers variances to exceed those limits.

“Our residents support redevelopment and modernization, but they don’t want a concrete jungle, like Makiki or Waikiki,” says Rep. Scott Saiki. He worries about variances, 650-foot towers and what he feels is unresponsiveness to the Legislature on the part of HCDA. “With the public scrutiny [about height and density issues] and growing concern at the Legislature about the autonomy of the HCDA, we will take a hard look at the statutory framework of the HCDA in the January session.”

HCDA executive director Anthony Ching says the rules in Kakaako are straightforward: an overall height limit of 400 feet (plus another 18 feet for machinery). Any developer who wants to exceed that has to meet three criteria—at least 75 percent of the units must be priced as affordable workforce housing, the building must receive no government subsidies and the maximum unit size must be 1,100 square feet for a three-bedroom—before he or she can ask for a height variance.

Even then, “it doesn’t mean they’ll automatically get the variance,” says Ching. As for the three possible 650-foot towers, he says rules will be set by this summer, after the environmental impact statement is reviewed. “To build to that height, the project must offer an exemplary public benefit,” says Ching, “and the rules will include public input on the project.”

(Disclosure: Napier served as a volunteer public member of the AIA Honolulu board during his production of this piece, but it does not reflect any board stance on building heights.)