Kakaako: Core Density
As the Honolulu real estate market begins to thaw after its half-decade chill, Kakaako is emerging as the hot new cool spot, abuzz with projects and visions that promise to dramatically transform the somewhat scruffy, but beloved, district into Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s envisioned “Third City.”
Bounded by Piikoi, Punchbowl and King streets and the waterfront from Kewalo Basin to Pier 1, Kakaako is slated for at least 30 new residential highrises. Over the next 15 to 20 years, the district’s population is expected to triple to about 30,000, and numerous new shops, restaurants, offices and possibly even an amusement park are planned.
“It’s the last place in urban Honolulu. Everyplace else is built out,” says Ron Iwami, president of Friends of Kewalos, a grassroots group. “That’s why the developers want it.”
Lifelong residents of a growing city want it, too.
“This is where the local people have migrated to because they don’t feel welcome in Waikiki or Downtown,” Iwami says, noting that the Kakaako shoreline has become a popular recreation area for folks who live in town. “If it’s all developed, where will we go? We have no place else to go. This is like a little piece of country in town. That’s why it’s so precious.”
The 670-acre district is also precious to government officials seeking more construction jobs, housing and tax revenues. It’s a multibillion-dollar prospect for developers, at least one of whom wants to implement a vision that’s “more about community, more about people, not built structures,” says Christian O’Connor, senior asset manager for Kamehameha Schools (KS), one of the district’s largest landowners.
“I’m really excited about all that’s happening down there,” O’Connor says. “It’s great for small businesses and concentrates dwellers where they should be, which is the urban core where sustainable living is possible.”
Mauka vs. makai
In earlier times, the area was extensively cultivated with taro, and alii built residences there. It later became the hub of a growing city, with foreign ships docking at the harbor. Now it’s a rough-and-tumble mix of light industrial, residential and commercial uses, divided by Ala Moana Boulevard into two distinct areas: Kakaako mauka and makai.
Most of the new development will happen on the mauka side. Two high-speed rail stations are planned on Halekauwila Street and Ward Avenue, though the exact rail route is unclear, given the presence of extensive ancient burials in the district.
“It’s our desire to build community in place, not just build buildings,” says Anthony Ching, executive director of the Hawaii Community Development Authority (HCDA), a state agency guiding the redevelopment of Kakaako. “We actually want to make the place not so car-centric”–a goal driven by the concept of transit-oriented development, be it bus or rail.
That means supporting “the big arts and culture renaissance that’s happening there” with “active streetscapes” that entice people to get out of their cars and meander along shaded streets lined with sidewalk cafes and stores, Ching explains. The idea, he says, is to have people sleep in their units, but use the parks and other public areas as their front yards.
The makai lands are similarly envisioned as “a people gathering place,” with parks, a coastal promenade and community gardens, Iwami says. But since they depend on funding from either the state Legislature or the HCDA, these aren’t moving forward as quickly as the private projects ramping up mauka.
KS: “The Three C’s”
In the next five to seven years, KS plans to put up to 1,400 units of housing on the market, O’ Connor says. It already has approvals for up to 2,750 units and zoning entitlements for seven towers, though a mix of high- and low-rise is planned “so you get that varying of heights [and] it’s not like this huge canyon. It’s very human. In our Kakaako, it’s all about the three C’s: community and culture that then produces commerce.” Ultimately, he adds, KS’s goal is to redevelop or build new on 4.4 to 4.6 million square feet of commercial and residential space.
Plans call for “repositioning some of the older spaces,” which means that some longtime tenants must move, O’Connor says. KS has pledged to help them relocate to one of the other malls it owns or to another building in Kakaako.
The Texas-based Howard Hughes Corp., which purchased Ward Centers from General Growth two years ago, is Kakaako’s other major private landowner. Hughes’s $7.5 billion redevelopment plan calls for 22 high-rise residential towers on its 60 acres; it already has approval to develop 9.3 million square feet, including 4,300 residential units, and some new retail is projected to come on line this year.
Other private projects include San Diego-based Oliver McMillan’s plans for 407 apartments in a 400-foot tower called Symphony Honolulu, with an exotic-car dealership on its ground floor, and A&B Properties’s Waihonua at Kewalo, a 341-unit condominium high-rise going up near Ala Moana Center. On Waimanu Street, nonprofit Artspace/Pai is planning 72 units of work/living space for native Hawaiian artists.
On the public side, the HCDA has chosen Forest City Hawaii to design and build housing on state land at 690 Pohukaina St. The $500 million proposal calls for constructing 780 afforable rental apartments and 24 luxury penthouses. It’s still uncertain as to whether it will be a much-publicized 650-foot tower, which would exceed the city height limit by 250 feet, or two smaller high-rises.
The University of Hawaii, meanwhile, just completed its five-story, $119 million cancer center adjacent to Kakaako Waterfront Park.
“If we could stop it, we would, because it’s just getting too dense everywhere,” Iwami says. “But we know we can’t stop it. People need jobs, places to live. So we won’t oppose them, as long as they stay mauka of Ala Moana Boulevard. We will focus and fight really hard for the makai side to be kept non-residential.”
Thirty makai acres, including Fisherman’s Wharf, were recently given to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) to settle its longstanding dispute with the state over its share of revenues from the so-called “ceded” lands.
OHA’s intentions for the land are still unknown–it’s in the process of creating a master plan. Though she did not respond to requests for comment on this story, OHA Chairwoman Colette Machado previously told the Weekly (“Kakaako: What Gives?” Dec. 7, 2011) she would not push to have the state Legislature overturn the law prohibiting residential highrises in Kakaakao makai.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the idea is off-limits. When the state Legislature was considering the bill to transfer the land, another measure was attached that would have exempted two of the 10 parcels from the residential highrise ban. “We rallied at the Capitol,” Iwami recalls. “It went to the twelfth hour and then it was dropped. That would have been the opening of the flood gates.”
Public master plan
Much of Kakaako makai is slated for noncommercial public development, such as shoreline parks and promenades, community gardens, cultural museums, a performing arts center, fish and farmers’ markets, a 1,110-space parking lot and a community center, according to HCDA’s draft master plan, crafted with extensive community involvement over nearly five years.
Iwami says a new proposal for a $10 million amusement park with go-karts, a zipline tower and indoor surfing and skydiving seems to fit in with the master plan’s vision of creating “a people’s gathering place for keiki to kupuna,” though he hopes the developer will cater to residents and not just tourists.
The state has said it has no money to implement HCDA’s master plan, so Iwami worries that parcels now slated for parks may be vulnerable to development. Indeed, D.G. “Andy” Anderson has proposed to build a new John Dominis restaurant on land designated for a park at the corner of Kewalo Basin Park and Ala Moana Boulevard. (Anderson is also seeking to build a hotel on city parkland in Haleiwa.)
Ching acknowledged Anderson’s interest in the Kewalo site, which is zoned for waterfront commercial use. “I’ve been trying very hard to dissuade him, and I think I almost have,” Ching says. “I’ve never considered that parcel to be a developable lot.” As an alternative, Anderson has proposed placing the restaurant on piers in the harbor; Iwami says the community is considering this.
A lei of green
Iwami’s own pet project is the promenade, which he describes as “a lei of green, so one could walk from Magic Island through Ala Moana to Kewalo Basin and back along the Fisherman’s Wharf side.” The promenade is included in the Kakaako Makai Master Plan.
“Everyone agreed to that principle 100 percent,” Iwami says. “It was the most popular concept of the master plan. It’s just that there’s no money, that’s why they can’t move forward. But that doesn’t mean they have to replace the promenade with something that could make money.”
Ching downplayed concerns that parcels slated for parks would be developed into revenue-generating uses. “I am going to try and be consistent with the master plan,” he says.
The community is hoping that a parcel now occupied by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is moving elsewhere, could be turned into a park, Iwami says. “With thousands more people in the area, they’re gonna need more recreation space,” says Iwami, who suggested that developers building towers be required to pay for the park improvements.
Developers already are assessed 3 percent of a project’s value for improvements to roads, parks and other public facilities, Ching says. “We operate under the principle that we have to be fair and consistent in applying development rules. If they’ve already paid [an assessment] I can’t ask them for any more.”
But HCDA can pay for such projects with its own lease revenues or seek monies from the state. Currently, HCDA is asking lawmakers to fund improvements to Kakaako Waterfront Park, where the agency recently spent $5 million on repairs. It’s also requesting money to build a community center and outdoor performance mound that would create a public gathering space, as well as funds to fix the intersection at the entrance to the Kewalo Basin Harbor and the jetty. “These efforts are intended to enhance public facilities in Kakaako above what we [HCDA] can do,” Ching says.
KS plans to build a greenbelt connecting Mother Waldron and Gateway parks, and O’Connor says KS has been paying “millions and millions of dollars for infrastructure assessments” since the 1980s. “From Punchbowl to Cooke to Pohukaina to Halekauwila, a lot of infrastructure has been put in place incrementally for a lot denser master plan that was conceived in the ’80s and ’90s. Based on the [lower] level of density we’re pursuing now, we’re in good shape.”
HCDA is also asking the Legislature for money to finish up its “complete streets” program, which is key to making Kakaako residents less dependent on cars.
“We’re really hoping they can keep the main thoroughfares like Ward accessible, keep the mauka-makai roads open and flowing so we can get to the ocean without getting stuck in trafffic,” Iwami says.
But Ching says there’s no plan to construct more vehicle lanes in Kakaako. “You cannot build your way our of traffic,” he says. Instead, the idea is “to give people choices” that will encourage them to change their behavior. Simply put, many residents will opt to walk, or ride a bike, trolley or bus, if it’s cheaper and easier than using a car, he says.
Access and views
Friends of Kewalos supports that concept so long as free public parking is maintained near the ocean, Iwami says. The group is also concerned about preserving the view of the mountains from the water. HCDA did adopt a rule that requires new towers to be oriented in a way that minimizes impacts on mauka-makai views. However, Howard Hughes and KS are exempt, since their towers were approved before the rule went into effect, and HCDA recently granted exemptions to the Symphony and Pohukaina towers.
“We’re just trying to make sure you can still park for free right near the ocean, so you don’t have to go through a hotel right-of-way or park at a restaurant,” Iwami says. “We just want to protect our access to the shoreline there. If we can’t turn around and see the mountains, well, at least we can turn around and see the ocean.”
If there’s still room to turn around, that is.