Kakaako's Block F: Too Good to Last?

What happens to Kakaako’s creative community when Kamehameha Schools kicks into high gear?

Block F—the hippest block in Kakaako.

photo: olivier koning

Block F. It’s a clinical-sounding name for what’s become a quirky, creatively-charged row of businesses, boutiques and galleries on Auahi Street in Kakaako. Right now the line-up of shops includes R/D, ii Gallery, LIMB Workshop, Hank’s Haute Dogs, Paiko, the revolving pop-up Taste and regular events such as the monthly Night Market.

The hip mix of art and retail is part of Kamehameha Schools’ larger plan for the neighborhood; right now the landowner is marketing it as “Our Kakaako.”

But a majority of the tenants of Block F are on short-term leases, written on case-by-case bases, some as short as six months. As new construction washes over the block in 12 to 28 months, anything could change. As a result, many say they’re not sure how deep to bury their roots.

“We need to enjoy it while it lasts,” Paiko co-owner Tamara Rigney says. “We love it down here, but our future is uncertain. It’s hard to structure a business around an uncertain future, so we just take it one day at a time.”

Sean Connelly is an architect and sculptor whose recent show at ii Gallery, “A Small Area of Land (Kakaako Earth Room),” closed in April. His work explores the idea that those who control the land in Hawaii control its future, and Connelly says he’s especially interested in what’s happening in Kakaako. “On one hand it’s amazing, because it’s really grassroots,” he says. “But, at the same time, when you really look at it, it’s supported by KS. So is this a façade of arts? Or is this actually the example of the top down, bottom up partnership that we’ve all been wanting and looking for?”

We asked Paul Quintiliani, the director of KS’s commercial real estate division, about the long-term plans for arts in the development of the neighborhood. He says, “I’d like to emphasize first and foremost that we are programming permanent space for artists within our district, so there’s not going to be this wholesale exodus of artists from our Kakaako. We’ve invited people in, and we want to make sure that the arts community always has a home.”

“We recognize that requires space that’s affordable to those who are engaged in the artistic activities,” he says. “We plan for that. It’s just part of what we need to do. Is it a zero-sum game? Are there winners and losers? You’re asking me to forecast something that is years and years out.”

For now, the mood floating over Block F, while trepidatious, is also strangely nostalgic, particularly for such a new scene. Nothing lasts forever, but the burst of creative energy happening right now is real, and its possibly fleeting nature might even be Kakaako’s best quality at the moment, as it looks forward to future development.

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Q&A with Kamehameha Schools' Paul Quintiliani

In May, writer James Cave spoke on the phone with Paul Quintiliani, senior director for Kamehameha School’s commercial real estate division, to talk about the redevelopment plans for Kakaako, and what the future holds for the arts and culture scene in the burgeoning neighborhood.


James Cave: I’d like to talk to you about art’s placement in the KS master plan of Kakaako; the potential, its future, what will happen to Paiko, R/D, LIMB, Lana Lane, the murals, etc. From the bigger movements, such as Pow Wow, to the smaller places, like LIMB. And what happens when the real estate becomes too expensive for those tenants that are there now. What will happen in that shift. So I’ll ask you questions along those lines.

Paul Quintiliani: Well, art has always factored into what we’re trying to do. We’ve seen it turn beaten-down areas into something really cool. But what ends up happening is the artists get priced out, and then they’ll look for the next cheap price and then the cycle begins all over again. So I’m very aware of the concerns. And we’ve had people in the art community talk to us about that.

But maybe I could take a step back, if you would. When we envisioned our master plan from the get-go, one of the overriding notions has been to create a vibrant urban island culture. And we say that over and over again.

These are not just empty platitudes, these are things that we’re really trying to accomplish: providing the fertile grounds in which an urban culture can really start to form in Honolulu, in a way that hasn’t been manifested before.

Because that state hasn’t really been given over to the innovators, to the artists, and to others that really want to start to transform the urban environment as we know it here in Honolulu. Our efforts to bring these artists in wasn’t an afterthought, they were conscious, specific decisions that we were making. And some of it was from what we knew was going on in other communities. And some of it was when we went to those communities and talked with artists and talked with city planners to find out what was going on, and how you make space for these people, and try to take those lessons and then apply them to our own unique environment here in Honolulu. We thought a lot about that. You know, we’re not the artists.

Really the story is about how the artists have gravitated toward Kakaako. And how strongly there’s been this un-satiated appetite to do something really different. We’ve been able to help foster that by providing funding in certain instances, providing space for those who have come with a really interesting idea, and we said, Yeah, we can get behind that and support that. We also are purchasing art. Some of it, we’re putting up in our own developments, so, in that regard, we’re somewhat of a patron. And so we’ve tried to support this group as much as we can.

Obviously our mission is about art, but this community is about culture, and a vibrant culture at that, and the arts play a prominent role. So, as we go forward—I mean, the good thing is that, you know, nothing’s in jeopardy today. The development’s starting to take form in our Kakaako, but there’s nothing that’s at risk today.

But, in the next 24 months, we’re going to start to see some of the first major shifts, and they’re going to happen down in that very area where R/D and Paiko and many of the groups that you had spoken about are already existing. Including the restaurants. We think about art holistically; we don’t think of it just as the wall pieces or the sculptures, we also think of it as food, fashion, performance art. So, just so you know, we have a much broader perspective of art. So the transformation on Block F is going to start happening. Those very spaces that you talk about are going to be repurposed.

Now, what we’ve chosen to do on Block F is not a scrape and rebuild; that’s not our program. We’re working with the existing building forms to repurpose those buildings into something that’s very eclectic, that speaks to the historical uses that were on that property, post contact of course. So you’ll see that a lot of those buildings will be retained, they’ll just be refashioned and repurposed in ways that will allow a variety of different retailers to come in, new restaurants, local businesses. But we’re also committing a certain amount of that space to the arts community. We have a designed art walk up on the second level where we’re going to have artisan studios. These won’t just be galleries, they’ll be studios where people can produce. We’ve got art that’s going to get infused to indoor/outdoor gallery space. And, in the courtyard of that center, art will become a key component of our overall programming. Whether that’s performance art, sculpted art, food art, fashion art—whatever form it takes—it’s going to be a heavy part what we’re trying to do with the programming in that particular development. And you may have heard about it. It’s called Salt Kakaako.

In addition to that, we’ve taken some artists that have different needs and different demands that probably aren’t going to fit well into that development because of the way that they’re engaging in the creative process. We’ve created another temporary space, sort of a longer-term temporary space, going out 7 to 10 years, called Lana Lane. We’ve got a couple of people over there now, which is an offshoot of Pow Wow. And they have 10 to 15 artists who are cohabiting that space, and they’re creating art all the time. So we intend to sort of maintain that space for a longer period of time. In addition, we’re looking for ways to infuse art into the district. We’re really excited about the efforts of Art Space USA to bring housing in for artists; we had some early conversations with them about creating an artist housing project within our holdings. Obviously, they got a different option with the HCDA but we continue to collaborate with them. We’ve had some early conversations about creating not necessarily a gallery space, but an exhibition space that can be used by various organizations.

So that’s something that’s in early gestation. We haven’t committed to if we will do it, but we’re committed to thinking about how that could work, and finding out from the artists how that could sustain itself. Because, at the end of the day, it does have to sustain itself.

We’re continuing to work with groups like Interisland Terminal who will be back on our block in our Salt Kakaako project. They’re going to be a permanent tenant over there. We’ve got some programs that we’re working with them coming up this year that’s going to have an internationally renowned group that’s going to do a phenomenal architectural installation that’s going to create a new public space, which will also have the opportunity to be used in ways that will support and enhance the creative community down in Kakaako.

More recently, we’ve done a series of Cooke Street improvements in anticipation of this upcoming Cyclovia. We’ve infused new artworks in that particular area. We’re working with Jeff Gress to do those installations. We’re just finding ways to do it. I think the long and short of it is: how art gets expressed throughout the district. We certainly expect that to change. If we take down a wall that has a piece on it, you know, that’s going to happen. But our expectation and our desire and our objective is to make sure that art always has a forward footing in this community. That the art over time will likely evolve as the community itself evolves. What we’re trying to do is support collaborations with artists, with residents, with business owners down there, really to establish if Kakaako has its own aesthetic—not one that we’re driving from the top. I definitely expect it’s going to evolve. But our role is to make sure we’re nurturing that in every way possible.


JC: It sounds like you’re continuing art through the evolution. With that said, would you consider what’s happening down there gentrification? And if so, do you consider that to be pejorative?

PQ: That word is so loaded, right? So I prefer not to think about whether we’re gentrifying or not gentrifying. Because the classic gentrification is, you’re kicking people out, right? And in this particular instance, we don’t really have residences; what we have instead are businesses, and we’ve done a very good job of trying to retain businesses within the district. those that can operate within the new paradigm of Kakaako. We’ve cultivated them; we’ve supported them; we’ve helped them with business models so that they can be dynamic in the community as it changes. And others that aren’t really a great fit? We’ve tried our best to find new homes for them or give them enough leeway so that they can plan for their particular futures. So I like to think of Kakaako as more of a transformation than a gentrification.


JC: Do you see the role of art, as it is now, completely changing in the future, or just becoming amplified? If there’s going to be retail, more places to live, and park spaces, how will that affect the arts that are there? Right now it is murals, it’s Lana Lane studios, it’s ii gallery. And I guess you could consider R/D as an arts space, as well. They perform a specific role, what they’re doing right now. So do those roles change? How do they change as it goes forward?

PQ: That’s for the artists themselves to grapple with. Again, I think our role is to facilitate collaborations. As the community evolves, the demands of the community are going to be expressed in different ways. As the owner of the master plan and the larger vision, our objective and our goal is to see art and culture expressed vibrantly throughout the district. That vision doesn’t get altered at all. There’s always going to be a prominent place for arts. The form of arts, how it gets expressed, who’s expressing it—those things likely do change. Some artists may decide, you know, “I want to do something different. I’m going to New York, right? I’m famous now. I’m going to stake and claim someplace else.” I can’t really speak to what it’s going to look like 15 years from now, other than there’s going to be a lot of art.


JC: What happens if there is an art show that may be derogatory to KS or what KS’s role has been in changing Kakaako? What would happen if that happened?

PQ: Obviously, we would be sort of disappointed, because I think we’ve been a big champion of the arts movement in Kakaako. But we’re not censoring it. There was an event recently that did something very similar to that. It was kind of eye opening. I wasn’t offended by it. I found it very intriguing and very provocative. And I know that there are those that take issue with: there’s not enough this kind of art or that kind of art. This isn’t being expressed, or this group is being excluded. That’s the lovely thing about art. We get to argue about it. It should be provocative, and I think we’re accomplishing that.


JC: Do you feel you are communicative to the tenants down there? The Auahi block, Block F, the central activity where night market happens, all the shops. Do you consider your communication level to be clear and thorough, or is it the tip of the iceberg?

PQ: I believe we’re being very communicative. We have an open collaboration with all of these folks. We’re a major sponsor for some of them, whether it’s in the form of cash or space, and we talk a lot about our vision and what we’re trying to accomplish. We’re trying to get them to express what they want to do in ways that are relevant and meaningful for them individually. So I would hope that they would feel that way, but I guess a better person to ask would be them. Because communication’s a two-way street. If they feel they are not being communicated with, then obviously we need to do a better job, but we have great relationships, in my view, with all those folks that are down there.


JC: When we consider the charity that you’re giving, all of these chances, opportunities to businesses down there who, let’s say in 10 years, when real estate’s going to be a lot more expensive, they would never be able to afford. So between now and then, when that does change, what would become of them? Is there a ranking involved with how you look at the businesses that are there?

PQ: [laughs] Wow, I wasn’t expecting these levels of questions. But I’d like to reemphasize first and foremost that we are programming permanent space for artists within our district, so there’s not going to be this wholesale exodus of artists from our Kakaako. We’ve invited people in, and we want to make sure that the arts community always has a home. We recognize that that requires space that’s affordable to those that are engaged in the artistic activities. We recognize that, and we plan for that. It’s just part of what we need to do. Is it a zero-sum game? Are there winners and losers? You’re asking me to forecast something that is years and years out. If the arts community really takes off and it becomes this international arts destination, as has happened in many other locations that we visited, I think that people will be clamoring to bring more artists in and figuring out ways to fit that in. And that will become a strong ethos in the community. So in that scenario, there’s probably room for all who want to have a place in our Kakaako. I’d like to hope that that’s the outcome, rather than have to pick and choose winners and losers. I don’t even know how that would happen. I don’t suspect it, you know, it’s something that we’re not even contemplating at this point.


JC: I can tell you that there are a few people down there holding their breath. That while they’re excited about these opportunities, they’re also sleeping with one eye open, so to speak. So I think it would be reassuring to hear you saying these things, you know what I mean? Some of the guys down there are saying, you know, “We don’t know how deep to bury our roots right now, because we don’t know how long we’re going to say.” I also think a lot of the community outside of the circle are asking that, too. Artists in Chinatown, for example, who aren’t a part of Kakaako, but are still affected by it, are curious about what is the relationship between KS and the tenants, and what is the future of arts there.

PQ: I think that that’s an awesome thing, and even though there’s all that sort of anxiety and trepidation and sleeping with one eye open, I get that. I mean, people have their stake and they’ve got their concerns, and those are legitimate. Those are really valid. But what’s really exciting, and what I get enthused about, is finding this arts community get more and more invested and more and more organized in what’s going on in Kakaako. We use the term “Our Kakaako”—we use that quite frequently—that’s kind of how we repositioned our master plan. When we use that term, it’s not “KS’s Kakaako;” that’s not what we mean by “Our Kakaako.” We mean it in the most holistic sense. It’s those that want to invest their time down there. It’s the people that are trying to make this place a community. It’s our Kakaako. We’re all very, very invested in that. So I love that the artists are down there are worried about this stuff. Because they have a big stake in this community, and we like to encourage that. That’s what makes for great community: people that are passionate about it. That’s what we want in Kakaako: people that are passionate about what’s happening down there; that care, and want to shape it in a way that works for their lives and has meaning to them. There is going to be development going on, that’s a given. But it needs to be development that’s working in a way that fits the lives and needs of those that are committed to that place. That’s what a neighborhood’s all about.