Cover Story

Following Rail’s route down the middle of Dillingham Blvd. to its easternmost station at Kapalama Stream, below. Neighborhood homes and businesses, opposite, will be overshadowed or demolished.
Image: joana gonzales

Elevated heavy rail--raised 30 feet high on columns marching down the middle of the boulevard--will destroy this potentially great, central Honolulu neighborhood.


Cover image for Oct 31, 2012

What’s gonna happen to Dillingham Boulevard if we let the city put the Hannemann/Caldwell elevated train right on top of it? It’s a question Honolulu needs to answer at the voting booth on Nov. 6 if we want to keep our options open for westward growth of the city’s urban core, if we want to do anything besides consign the poor old street to the awful rumblings and dank shadows of an urban wasteland . . . forever.

Dillingham Boulevard, the four-lane, two-way, circa-1930 artery strung between Liliha and Middle Streets, has already been grievously abused along its 1.4-mile straightaway through Kalihi Kai by gigantic power lines, courtesy of HECO.

But that doesn’t mean we should abuse it more.

The boulevard serves dense residential neighborhoods and some of Honolulu’s busiest small business and semi-industrial zones, both mauka and makai. With its large lots, Dillingham does all the things that much older and more historic King Street–its nearly parallel mauka twin–can’t or won’t do, nor will it ever have Nimitz’s grand, gateway-to-the-city aspirations. It’s a wonderfully workaday big street, full of enterprise. If we make good decisions and plan it well, Dillingham Boulevard could be where Honolulu finally grows up and reinvents herself as a humane, fully integrated city for the 21st century.

But first we have to say, “No, thank you!” to Mufi and Kirk’s overhead train.

Still the Mufi plan

The city’s Honolulu High Capacity Transit Corridor rail project (HHCTC), an all-elevated, 21-station, linear arrangement from Kapolei to Ala Moana, was instigated by former Mayor Mufi Hannemann and is championed by Kirk Caldwell, Hannemann’s former managing director and current mayoral candidate–and by Senator Dan Inouye. The Dillingham segment would be a 30-foot-wide elevated concrete guideway running down the center of the boulevard for nearly its entire length. The guideway would be held 30 feet aloft on concrete columns sunk into a newly created median strip; the city plans to make up for the lost traffic lane by condemning a 10 to 15 foot-wide strip of private property all along the makai side of the avenue.

The columns will be seven feet in diameter and spaced 150 feet apart. Three elevated rail stations will serve the area, each a 240-foot-long, 65-foot-wide concrete clot with platforms, passageways, stairs, elevators, escalators and restrooms. From the west, first up will be the Middle Street station, hovering over the stub of Dillingham at Middle Street, where it merges into Kamehameha/Nimitz Highway. About a half-mile east, the Kalihi station will lord over the intersection of Mokauea Street, and, another half-mile east, the Kapalama Station will dominate the stream’s crossing at Kokea Street.

Unsightly, but hey . . .

The city’s June 2010 Environmental Impact Statement for the HHCTC project called a spade a spade when it rationalized the elevated train’s visual impact in Kalihi by arguing that the neighborhood is already unsightly. “The bulk of the guideway and columns will be out of scale with the surrounding buildings,” the EIS said. “However, overheard utility lines are prevalent along Dillingham Boulevard, and the project elements will not contrast substantially with the setting’s character.”

When I ask Jayne Kim, the president of Eki Cyclery, about the prospect of an elevated train right outside her store, she predicts, “It’s gonna make our store dark.” As we talk, she gazes out the big window-wall of her warehouse-style store to the tree-filled yard at Kalihi Kai Elementary School directly across Dillingham.

“We’re gonna lose our view,” Kim says. “Probably get a lot of vibration, too. We got big plate windows, and you can hear the wind making them creak. Yeah, so we’re concerned about that.”

Eki Cyclery is a 101-year-old family business that has been selling bicycles at 1603 Dillingham Blvd. since 1987, when the Kims built the store on land leased from Kamehameha Schools (KS), the largest property owner in the state and fee holder for many big chunks of real estate along Dillingham Blvd., especially around Waiakamilo Road and Kapalama stream.

Lighter alternatives

A few years ago, KS executives commissioned an internal comparative study of Light Rail Transit (LRT) versus the city’s elevated heavy rail plan, the technology and basic routing of which remain virtually unchanged since former Mayor Frank Fasi first proposed it in the early 1970s.

Made public in September 2009, the KS report recommended that a hybrid, elevated/at-grade LRT system would be a better fit for Honolulu. Its central segment, from Waipahu to Middle Street, would remain elevated, but, for many planners, architects, and other observers, the key to the proposal was that the Dillingham-to-Ala Moana section of the system through Honolulu’s urban heart would be at-grade, and run on existing streets.

The report, which was vociferously attacked by the Hannemann administration when it came out, estimated that such a system would add 12 minutes to the end-to-end travel time, but would save an estimated $1.8 billion and shave at least a year off construction time. Furthermore, LRT technology would allow for much more flexibility and much lower costs for future extensions of the line to Waikiki and Manoa–not to mention eventual lines to ‘Ewa Beach, Wahiawa or Hawaii Kai.

Speaking with Kim in Eki Cyclery, I briefly describe the KS report’s suggestion for at-grade service on Dillingham.

“I would prefer that,” Kim says. “Either that, or a more extensive bus system with dedicated lanes on existing streets, because I think that for our island, a bus system is more . . . It’s cheaper, easier to maintain. It’s more adaptable. As the population changes, you can change the routes more easily.”

I ask if she had attended many community meetings about the train.

Kim sighs. “Initially, I did, but I haven’t been to recent meetings. When the project was first starting, I did. It was a different administration then–Hannemann. I guess it was his baby, he just kind of pushed it through.” She laughs lightly. “Forced it down everyone’s . . .” She stops, aware of my tape recorder.

What a waste

Tommy Ko, owner of Tommy’s Auto Services on the mauka-diamondhead corner of Dillingham and Puuhale Road, eagerly opines that the city’s rail plan “is gonna waste a lot of money.

“I don’t know,” he continues in his thick Chinese accent, shaking his head as he thinks. “How do they do the maintenance? But the real question is, does Hawaii really need the train to solve the traffic problem, or does the problem come from the design of the freeway?

“Anyway,” Ko adds, “if they build it, they should build it on Nimitz because it’s a lot wider.” He walks out onto the cracked and narrow sidewalk in front of his busy shop, a former gas station on the 9,700-square-foot lot he owns, to show me the telephone and utility poles, including HECO’s fat steel kV towers, just inches from the curb. He predicts chaos when the city tries to squeeze a new median into the middle of Dillingham.

Across from Ko’s shop, hugging the mauka-‘ewa corner of Puuhale Road, sits “Puuhale Market–Since 1979,” a very old wooden building painted sky blue, with a corrugated-tin awning wrapping the corner.

“That will go,” Ko predicts when I admire it. He says he signed a petition against the train a while ago. “People actually don’t want it on Dillingham. Certain people, they asked me to put up signs against it.

“When you build something, you have to think, ‘What’s happening?’ But problem is, everybody tries to solve the problem today. They don’t care about what happens later. You pay again,” Ko says.

The manager of a cafe at the corner of Mokauea Street says he heard that the planned Kalihi station will knock out the 7-Eleven store across the street. He doesn’t want to use his name, but predicts, “No one’s going to use the train. It’s a big waste of money, all that steel and concrete.” (The cafe, which featured Filipino favorites, closed, he told me in a follow-up call, after the landowner sold its front parking lot to the city.)

Another restaurateur on Dillingham who doesn’t want to be identified says he has no particular feelings about the planned rail. I ask him what he thinks Dillingham will be like with an elevated train running down the middle of it, and he answers, “I can’t imagine how something like that looks.”

KS comments

The Kamehameha Schools is a charitable educational trust established in 1887 whose corpus is the 367,000 acres of royal Hawaiian lands inherited by Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the last royal descendant of the Kamehameha line. Upon her death, the princess instructed that her estate be held in trust to educate Hawaiian children.

The estate’s landholdings throughout the islands, about 9 percent of the state’s total area, have made KS a reluctant, often behind-the-scenes but essential player in all sorts of development, conservation, and other land-use issues. Back in February 2009, then-KS Vice President for the Endowment Kirk Belsby signed off on a 20-page comment letter in response to the Hannemann administration’s draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the HHCTC rail project. The letter, addressed to Wayne Yoshioka, director of the city’s Department of Transportation Services, was couched in polite terms, but it can nevertheless be fairly described as the great landowner’s cri de coeur against Hannemann’s elevated rail plan. It publicly reiterated the same concern about elevated rail’s impact on KS properties that motivated KS’ 2009 internal study of a light-rail, at-grade alternative.

The comment letter began by stating that the rail project would affect more than a hundred different KS properties and a thousand KS tenants and subtenants. Along Dillingham Boulevard alone, KS owns real estate valued at well over $100 million, including huge blocks of underdeveloped land on three of four corners at the key Kapalama stream crossing. (The mauka-diamondhead corner is owned by the state.)

The following statements are quotes from Belsby’s letter:

• “KS is concerned that the Project will affect visibility of and access to the businesses on KS properties; limit the redevelopment options available to KS and other landowners; and narrow streets, among other impacts.”

• “It is KS’ understanding that City did not formally reject an at-grade system as an alternative during the alternatives analysis . . . At-grade alternatives were not adequately studied before being eliminated from consideration in the DEIS . . . It is KS’ understanding that the discussion of what fixed guideway system is optimal for the urban core remains open.”

• “An elevated system with platforms will cause visual blight . . . these visual and aesthetic impacts may reduce tenant or customer interest in the area, increase turnover and decrease property values.”

Cayetano stands firm

This writer repeatedly sought to speak with appropriate KS executives about these three-year-old, but still relevant and well-expressed concerns, especially as they relate to the future of Dillingham Boulevard. I wanted to ask someone in a position of authority at KS if its concerns had been ameliorated, and how. I also wanted to understand how KS would plan for the future of its properties, especially those adjacent to transit stations raised three stories above the ground.

Finally, after months of back and forth, when it was clear that no KS planning or development officials would be available for an interview, I submitted seven questions regarding KS’ comments to KS spokesman Kekoa Paulson.

Paulson’s reply did not address the questions but instead generally argued that Honolulu needs mass transit, “regardless of the technology that ultimately gets implemented.

“Other credible transit options for Oahu may exist,” Paulson wrote, “but the city is moving forward with elevated rail today.” He concluded: “That debate is over; we have moved on.”

KS may have folded under intense pressure, but mayoral candidate Ben Cayetano, who has pledged to stop rail if elected, has not.

Kalihi Kai: The recent past

In 1916, Oahu Prison relocated from Iwilei to the scrubby flats of Kalihi Kai, not too far from where Kalihi stream empties into Keehi Lagoon. The county built a new, state-of-the-art, two-story, cross-shaped concrete prison with a four-story watchtower and a capacity of 600. The 9-acre walled compound dominated the western edge of Honolulu and terminated the dirt track that serviced it, called West Queen Street.

Four years later, the Honolulu Vocational School, which eventually morphed into Honolulu Community College, set up shop, also on West Queen just east of Kapalama stream. Finally, in 1930, the Honolulu Board of Supervisors decided to widen and improve the increasingly busy thoroughfare, which by that time connected downtown and the harbor area to the ‘round-the-island Oahu Belt Road, renamed Kamehameha Highway in 1920 (Nimitz Highway wasn’t developed until WWII.).

With its widening, the city decided to rename the connector Dillingham Boulevard to honor businessman Benjamin F. Dillingham (1844–1918), a marooned sailor from Cape Cod who got rich dabbling in sugar plantations and building Oahu’s only railroad, the 72-mile OR&L line that once serviced ‘Aiea, Wahiawa, ‘Ewa, Waianae, Haleiwa and Kahuku via Kaena Point from its depot, still standing in Iwilei.

The historian, novelist and pioneer Hawaiian activist John Dominis Holt, in his 1993 memoir, Recollections, told of being a child and moving into the working-class district of Kalihi in the early 1930s after his well-to-do, hapa-haole family fell on hard times. Holt remembered Kalihi fondly, as “distinctly a neighborhood, made up of little clusters of houses built at specific times, each cluster having a special architectural look popular when it was built . . . Here was the melting pot of Honolulu.” The makai neighborhood called Kalihi Kai was, he wrote, “crowded with small houses surrounded by eternally prevalent Hawaiian gardens.

“The air itself was Hawaiian. Living in Kalihi made me more Hawaiian in every way . . . Kalihi changed our views of how Hawaiians lived, behaved, and talked.”

According to 2000 census figures, Kalihi-Palama households had a median income of $31,630; the lowest percentage of Caucasians of any district in Honolulu at four percent; and the highest percentage, by far, of native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders, at 14 percent.