Terrance Ware
Image: Terrance Ware

Terrance Ware / Terrance Ware took his post as Honolulu’s manager of transit-oriented development in September. Ware brings decades of experience in the field–a field that’s getting a lot of attention both locally and nationally these days–from his time in cities all over the country. Honolulu Weekly sat down with him last week.

It seems “transit-oriented development” is kind of a buzz phrase these days, but you’ve worked in the industry for decades.

When I came out of college, the big thing was sustainability. I mean, talk about coming full cycle. That was because of the gas crisis in the ’70s. It was all about solar, aquaculture, recycling, that’s what I spent four years working on. Then no one wanted to talk about it, so I had to find something else to be employable with.

Was that because of the political shift of the 1980s?

Well, people have short memories, really. So when the gas crisis kind of eased away, people just went on with their lives… The only thing that really changed was the boom in smaller, more fuel-efficient Japanese cars. Now, the Chinese are kicking our butts. And that’s because when the government there says, ‘We’re all going right,’ they all turn right. Here, it’s, ‘Oh, I don’t know. How far right? Should we go left?’

Almost nothing happens because we want to debate every alternative…[but] not all ideas are equal! Sarah Palin is not in the same category as Obama. I don’t care what your politics are, people have to be able to see that. We struggle so much to move in any one direction because we’re afraid it’s going to piss somebody off or somebody will be left behind. China’s moved on! They have jumped into the green industry, they’re building high-speed rail and they are kicking our butts.

Of course this calls to mind the local rail debate.

You know, when he interviewed me for this position, the mayor asked me my thoughts about at-grade, above-grade, whatever. I said, it depends. You have to be very clear about what your goals and objectives are. If your primary goal is to relieve traffic congestion, not everything else is equal. If that’s going to be the number one thing, then you’re gonna make a choice to do that at the expense of doing something else.

And you can see that in the debate between at-grade and elevated. From the architects’ perspective, it appears there are two things that they–at least publicly–have talked about: one is cost. Is your goal to build the least costly system? If yes, then put it at-grade. But unlike Denver, Phoenix and some of the other areas that have light rail, you don’t have a grid system that you can disperse traffic on. Any one street you take up with rail means you’ve pushed traffic somewhere else. And that’s OK, unless your primary goal is to remove traffic congestion… I would prefer to put the system below ground but then you’ve quadrupled your cost, particularly because of the geography and the geology of the area.

In what other ways must Honolulu’s approach to transit-oriented development be unique?

Here, you have a mature urban environment and you don’t have the sort of historic land-development pattern with an industrial area that’s lined along the ports. So it makes it more challenging to determine where you put a rail system… Then, in connecting people between home and work, there’s a land-use component that looks at where the employment centers are, but also, you need to build more affordable housing… It’s difficult from both a financial perspective and from a social perspective: if you get mixed-income housing and I’m a market-rate buyer, why would I move there? That’s where you need the amenities like parks, schools, nightlife. All these strings that you’re trying to tie together–the economy, jobs, housing, culture, social equity issues–and it becomes extremely challenging.

Here–how can I say this nicely?–it doesn’t seem like there’s been a lot of thought, with rail aside, about some of those challenges. You know, my mom moved out here to stay with me for a while, and her observation, as soon as she got off the plane was, ‘Gee, all these buildings look like they were built at the same time.’ And they were. The ’70s. Everything has kind of stopped at that point. And whatever the broader sort of direction or thought from government, that continuing re-investment in a planned way, it doesn’t seem to have taken place…

Here, there seems to be a sort of laissez-faire, ‘Oh, we’ve got tourism and it will pay its own way.’ Yeah, the resorts will continue to invest in themselves, but what does that mean for the island, for the state, as a whole?

But your job is to assess development opportunities dependent on rail, is that right?

I was hired to focus on the potential for development adjacent to the transit stations. You know, really, you have to understand what’s happening in the marketplace because transit is icing on the cake. What you’re really doing with rail is manipulating what’s already there.

If you look at Atlanta, most of the development that’s occurred related to the transit system was going on anyway, so transit just enhanced the development. But it didn’t change it. If you go to South Atlanta, and the poor black neighborhoods south of I-20, they’re just as undeveloped and blighted as they ever have been…

I focus on all these factors: the availability of credit, the marketplace, where development is going, what development demand is, what’s driving the economy, where the economic forces are occurring on the island. It really has to be a holistic approach… Innovation for the future comes from young people who are looking to create the next big thing. And you have to enhance where those people would live and hang out. You know, what Chinatown could be.

My office is near Chinatown, so we talk about this frequently at the Weekly.

The challenge in Chinatown is you’ve got landowners who are not developers. I was reading your article about new lofts that are $800 to $2,000 a month?! For a loft? If you’re a starving artist? I mean, that’s a lot of money… If you’re a private developer, let’s be honest about it, you’re doing it because they can make a profit. So let’s leap beyond the whole capitalist discussion of whether it’s right to make a profit and assume that it is, because it’s an investment question. Unless there’s some way for government to bite off a chunk of that value, basically absorb it because we’re in it for the long term, then I don’t know how you cut costs.

I know development is complex everywhere. Does it seem more complex here?

Yes. It really does. For me, the big thing that I am challenged by is, what are the economic drivers? Cities like Atlanta, San Francisco and L.A., they’re connected to the global marketplace. Those are major global cities. When you talk about mixed-use around transit, for example, you think residential and office. But there’s virtually no office work here. And why would there be?

It’s interesting you mention global cities because I think people locally would argue that Honolulu is a global city, though maybe due to its diverse population or proximity to the East.

Honolulu is not a global city. It’s a second-tier city. There are local banks here. I thought we were part of the U.S., and there’s no Wells Fargo here. You’ve got local banks and that’s a good thing relative to lending, but they’re not really connected to the global financial network. So if tourism is what makes you, from my perspective, you need to be the best…

Well, it’s certainly an exciting time to watch things play out, politically and economically, on a global scale.

Yeah, as long as you’ve got a life preserver. When I was teaching martial arts, getting your black belt wasn’t the end, getting your black belt was the beginning. We’re looking for perfection in an imperfect world. You have to have transparency in government but at the end of the day, you have to make a decision about where you’re gonna go. And not making a decision is a decision. I mean, if you do nothing, it ain’t gonna get any better.