Two Kaka‘akos Have Emerged in 12 Years and New Plans for What Will Come May Change Our Skyline and Streets Yet Again
Since 2009, Honoluluans have had front-row seats to the rebirth and redevelopment of Kaka‘ako, the city’s much-touted future urban hot spot.
“All broken-down stuff.” That’s how my 77-year-old mother remembers the Kaka‘ako of her youth. The great swath of Honolulu between Ala Moana and Downtown has been marshland and salt ponds, home to a garbage dump, cheap housing and warehouses. Then in 2009, the Hawai‘i Community Development Authority approved two master plans that promised inspiring live-work communities with a strong sense of Hawaiian place for residents: Our Kaka‘ako, engineered by Native Hawaiian institution Kamehameha Schools, and Ward Village, created by Texas-based developer Howard Hughes.
“Each started with different clay to mold. Our Kaka‘ako occupies a relatively compact 29 acres on an easily maneuverable grid. The Howard Hughes project, which the developer acquired from then-Ala Moana Center owners General Growth Properties in 2010, covers a mammoth 60 acres, from what was the Brutalist-style Ward Plaza (sadly demolished in 2018) all the way to the Vladimir Ossipoff–designed IBM Building (thankfully spared) that now serves as Howard Hughes’ Honolulu headquarters.
They are in their pupa phases—eight years from now the neighborhoods will be even further changed. What are they like in this transitive state? With some residents already worrying about views from their new residences disappearing, we took a walk on the master-planned side to capture a fleeting moment in Kaka‘ako’s evolution.
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Spicing Things Up
“It feels intimate and more connected here.”
— Lance Takaki
The urban-village litmus test boils down to hitting the pavement. The locus of Our Kaka‘ako is its low-rise retail hub Salt, which retains some Kaka‘ako character through the repurposing of existing buildings. The old-timer on the block is Insomnia, Hiep Vu and Lethu Thi Hoang’s sliver of a Vietnamese coffee and sandwich joint. Opened in 2004, it’s a living link to the building’s previous incarnation as the Auahi Business Center (the old name can still be seen on the side of the building), some old-school grit to counterbalance the am-I-in-San-Francisco vibe of Morning Brew Coffee & Bistro. At tables in the soaring Barn space at the center of Salt, groups of teens huddle over laptops, and young professionals linger over takeout. I pick up a bar of cardamom milk chocolate at Lonohana, then head to Down to Earth for Elmhurst alternative milk (the only place in town that carries it) and H Mart for affordable produce. I can see the sky as I stroll; developments 400 Keawe, Keauhou Lane, the Flats at Pu‘unui and Six Eighty Ala Moana don’t exceed seven stories. Even towers The Collection and Keauhou Place add to the street experience with their skirts of retail storefronts and townhomes with porches that echo stoops of a bygone time (though I’ve still to see a human actually sitting on one).
Christian Self, who opened Bevy Bar in 2014 in a pre-rejiggered Salt, said for the first couple of years, “we were operating not knowing whether we would have to move or not.” Luckily Kamehameha Schools liked what he did with the space and left it largely intact, including a prized lava rock wall. When the residences around Bevy opened, “we didn’t see a huge boost [in business] but we definitely saw more long-term and steady customers coming through our doors.”
Janice Kekoa and her husband moved to 400 Keawe from Hawai‘i Kai as newly minted empty nesters. No longer having an hour-and-a-half round-trip commute, she sees the change as “buying time” to get fit and enjoy life. “We like the feel of it. Locals are here, it’s not so high end that you feel uncomfortable,” Kekoa says. “There’s a lot of outdoor space. You can get your coffee and croissant and sit outside in the fresh air.”
Across the street from her in The Collection, Lance Takaki, 34, is a live-work-play poster boy. He strolls to his office at Restaurant Row, and he’s made friends just walking around the neighborhood. “It feels intimate and more connected here.”
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Our Kaka‘ako is the earth-toned, concrete alternative to Ward Village’s sleek, glass-canyon heart.
Kamehameha Schools is now ready to start its second phase of Our Kaka‘ako, and it has a request in to HCDA for more time (extending completion from 2024 to 2029) and flexibility to build more than the currently allotted 2,750 residential units, with the intention of including more below-market fee simple and rental housing—50% instead of the required 20%. The next group of mixed-use buildings will be on a chunk of land Diamond Head of Salt, from Coral Street to the current end of Auahi, where it will meet Ward Village, and from Pohukaina Street to Ala Moana Boulevard. The vision is to create a grand pedestrian promenade from Mother Waldron Park to Kaka‘ako Makai Gateway Park.
But hopefully a square of Kaka‘ako past will remain for a long time to come, thanks to the Takayama family, which owns the Coral Commercial Center across the street from Salt. (The family has reportedly turned down multiple offers from the big boys.) Built in 1943, it is a complex of retail and warehouse space where local businesses have found safe, affordable harbor. Charley’s Fishing Supply, launched in 1957, moved here from Ke‘eaumoku Street about 15 years ago, and Pictures Plus is a Ward Warehouse refugee. It’s comforting to still see US Sewing & Vacuum, with its Singer sewing machines and notions, and Norm Winter’s Idea’s Music & Books—I was buying imported New Wave EPs from him in 1985, when he and his late wife ran Jelly’s on Ke‘eaumoku Street. In November, Amerjit Ghag opened her second Island Bungalow at Coral Commercial Center, 10 years after she opened the first across the street. (Back then it was called Chai Studio; the name changed to Island Bungalow when the store moved to Kailua.)
From Salt it takes me just 16 minutes to walk the 0.86 miles—about 17 Manhattan blocks—to the entrance of Whole Foods in Ward Village. I pass by Lana Lane Studios and the Pow! Wow! Hawai‘i murals that Kamehameha Schools shrewdly made a part of the Our Kaka‘ako brand, adopting an ages-long regentrification pattern of capitalizing on creatives and art to pave the way for development and mainstream consumerism. I turn left on alleylike Kō‘ula Street along the UFC Gym (I love alleys—they feel like your own secret passageways through a city) to Pohukaina Street and cross the invisible border into Ward Village.
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When In Ward
I take another left on Kamani Street and peep into the intriguing design shop Fishcake and continue to Halekauwila, where I note the rail-accommodating rounded corner of Ke Kilohana. First-time homeowner Mary Pigao loves living in Ke Kilohana, which opened in May 2019 with 375 of its 425 apartments offered at below-market prices for first-time homebuyers. She says her apartment amenities—such as two sky lānai (the yellow boxes protruding from the building) and a karaoke room downstairs—are spectacular, and she regularly joined Ward Village’s yoga sessions in Victoria Ward Park before the pandemic shut down group activities, and now tries to squeeze into the restarted limited-attendance classes. She finds it “encouraging that our neighbors are hard workers: construction workers, flight attendants.” When asked about last year’s unexpected 50% maintenance fee hike, which led to Ke Kilohana’s board suing Howard Hughes, she says she’s grateful that as part of a two-income household she hasn’t felt a pinch, but she empathizes with neighbors who have to shoulder the increase solo. The lawsuit joins other litigation against Ward Village developments. In addition, Howard Hughes has stepped up to pay an estimated $114.5 million to repair parts of Waiea, its most swanky condo that was home to now shuttered Nobu Honolulu. In 2019 the Waiea owner association sued Nordic, the building’s contractor.
Pigao watches with interest as the construction continues. Across the street is ‘Ohana Hale Marketplace, which will be razed later this year to make way for Howard Hughes’ proposed Park on Ward tower. Along Queen Street, Ward Village is interrupted by a short stretch of still individually owned lots. It’s where the Kaka‘ako of my childhood hangs on—a jumble of busy service-oriented businesses like Ray’s Transmission and Tropical Lamp & Shade, which recently handily replaced the broken switch on my antique lamp. The buzz of mechanics, customers and passing work trucks abruptly ends where Ward Village resumes, with the in-progress condo Kō‘ula and the monolithic Ae‘o tower, anchored by Whole Foods.
“When I started reading about Ward Village, I saw so many similarities to New York,”
— Scott Ashcroft
Our Kaka‘ako is the earth-toned, concrete alternative to Ward Village’s sleek, glass-canyon heart. Where four-lane Auahi and Kamake‘e streets intersect, it is hard to make it not feel like a place where the car is king and entitled drivers regularly turn left out of right-only exits (and vice versa), though Howard Hughes’ master plan promises a shaded, people-friendly promenade when the village is complete. With the sections of elevated storefronts—an aesthetic started with the 2001 Ward Consolidated Theatres—that street life vibe is missing. South Shore Market, the collection of local shops and eateries, is a hive of activity—but it’s indoors, hidden from the street. And with Kealopiko not renewing its lease this summer, I wonder how long it will continue to be my go-to place for Island-made quality gifts.
But a luxe, community-come-resort complex is the goal for many. There’s no denying the allure of Anaha’s glass-bottomed pool jutting out over Auahi Street—yes, I want to know what it is like to swim in the sky.
In November, Scott Ashcroft is moving into a studio in A‘ali‘i, Ward Village’s newest residence. “I was ecstatic,” he says of finding out he won the lottery two years ago for one of the 150 reserved housing units, out of a total of 751. The 35-year-old pilot lived in New York for a few years and was looking for the walkability he experienced there. “When I started reading about Ward Village, I saw so many similarities to New York,” he says. He anticipates that once the park areas are fully developed and rail comes in, “it’s going to be a really nice community.”
The green spaces he’s talking about are coming with Howard Hughes’ next phase, which is scheduled to start in late 2022. One of two planned mixed-use towers, the luxury Park on Ward will replace ‘Ohana Hale Marketplace and Wahoo’s; as part of that project, adjacent Victoria Ward Park Mauka will be expanded by about 50%.
“It’s going to make it a very interesting space in the city,” says Race Randle, senior vice president of development for Howard Hughes. “The wide-open green lawn will be wrapped by shade trees, and around the entire perimeter we’ve designed an indoor-outdoor retail environment with restaurants adjacent to the park to create a fun, active gathering place” that transforms the original 2009 master plan’s vision of a central plaza into a leafy area.
The second tower, Ulana, is designed to fulfill the master plan’s remaining HCDA mandate for moderate-priced housing. It would be situated makai of Ward Village’s other affordable building, Ke Kilohana, at Pohukaina and Kamani streets, where the industrial and retail Pohukaina Center—which houses designer Jana Lam and a dozen other small businesses—now sits.
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Serving Two Master (Plans)
It is in this area that Our Kaka‘ako and Ward Village meet like a handshake, with Ulana and an as-yet unspecified Kamehameha Schools building rubbing shoulders along a newly continuous Auahi Street. It’s the final opportunity to unite what architect Dean Sakamoto—who founded Sustainable, Humanitarian Architecture Design for the Earth—calls a missed “vision opportunity.” Instead of a single strong, communitywide plan created in the public interest with input from community and business owners, he says the HCDA ended up with a split neighborhood.
“It’s mainly about vision, economics and values,” says Sakamoto, explaining the problem of 20th-century suburban development patterns in urban neighborhoods that have destroyed many U.S. cities. “It’s more expensive to have smaller storefronts than a giant big-box healthy lifestyle store, and true communities are made by real people, not corporate directives.”
In this spot, the two developers are working on a possible collaboration on Howard Hughes’ proposed park space Ka La‘i O Kukuluae‘o, with a ribbon of elevated rail eventually tying them together.
“We’ve been coordinating closely with Kamehameha Schools, in particular on efforts to open Auahi Street and realign it,” says Randle. “When residents can walk easily to Salt for dinner then see a movie at Ward Village—it will be an even better environment.”
But what some hope won’t be lost is the area’s rich history. It spurred geographer and artist Adele Balderston to create her ongoing 88 Block Walks project. The series of tours are a living archive of early 20th-century personal histories of the neighborhood and is her way of honoring past voices in a time when, she says, companies are building to extract as much money as possible from the area. It’s not an unfounded notion: In its 2017 annual letter to shareholders, Howard Hughes describes its work as “unlocking value from Wall Street to Waikīkī.” Hopefully, in Kaka‘ako, its streets of gold will be mined to ultimately fulfill the public interest.
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By The Numbers