Tusitala Street--Alas, in the stillness of chain link fences and overgrown grounds, this street tells a very loud story.
Image: Jane Callahan

Urban gardening as a solution to Honolulu’s empty plots

Development / It seems a shame that verdant squares of fenced-off, overgrown plots remain untouched, languishing in terra-purgatory. Who owns that huge lot on Dillingham Boulevard and Colburn Street, the plot on King Street and Poha Lane or Kapiolani Boulevard and Hauoli Street? With the precious little space this city has left, why are these empty spaces not being utilized for something more productive than collecting weeds?

Hawaiian Host is the lessee of the lot on Dillingham and Colburn streets. It measures 30,000 feet and has lain barren since the 1990s. In 2004, the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting received a report stating that the plot would be a useful location on which to build a park, which could help revitalize the Kalihi neighborhood. However, the island’s biggest export (tourism) is deadlocked on keeping the land fallow.

“It’s not being used because of various reasons I can’t get into.” says Dennis Maeda, Senior VP of operations at Hawaiian Host. “[The owners] do not want to let us out of the [30-year] lease. Currently, we are paying above market value. We pay our bills, and they are happy, so why would they let us out of it?” While Maeda says the company is willing to buy the property to get out of the lease, they can’t “tie it up” with other uses until a settlement is reached.

The owners of the plots on King and Kapiolani streets could not be reached for comment.

Got a Better Idea?

Urban gardening is a hot topic regarding solutions to empty plots in major US cities. These plots become sources of crime, destruction and, ultimately, one hell of an eye sore. So why not come up with an idea that meets our local fresh produce needs–one that could potentially provide income and jobs?

Oahu currently has 10 community gardens, including seven within the Honolulu area. Individual plots range from 5×17 feet to 20×40 feet. For the majority, annual fees are $10 to $20, with a one-time user fee around $10. The city’s Recreational Gardening Program started to offer small agricultural spaces to residents in 1975 due to an overcrowding city. Joyce Spoehr, the recreational specialist at Foster Gardens who oversees the 10 island gardens explains, “Those fees pay the water bills as well as the salaries of the coordinators.”

She says the waitlist is usually between one to two months, and the turnover rate is due to aging members who find it increasingly difficult to make it to their gardens regularly, as well as people moving off-island or to another part of town.

But earning extra income isn’t an option for these community gardeners: Those who use the garden cannot sell their produce. “They can share it with neighbors and friends, but they aren’t allowed to market what they grow here.”

The parcels on King and Kapi’olani streets are each worth almost a million dollars, and the owners pay annual taxes on the property; a community garden would offer the chance to collect any amount of income on the space, while providing another source of income for urban gardeners.

City Councilmember Ann Kobayashi, under whose district the Kapiolani Avenue and King Street lots fall, says that since they are privately owned, there is nothing the city can do to push usage.

“We were trying to get the city to inventory remnant pieces of land, possibly allowing homeless people to grow vegetables or stuff they could even sell,” she says. “Someone suggested planting fruit trees along King Street in place of the current ones, but that comes with complications.”

Kobayashi suggests the cultivation of roof-top gardens for city dwellers without green space. “Just think how beautiful it would be to fly in over Honolulu and see all those gardens [atop the buildings],” she adds.

While the city offers no tax incentives for owners of lifeless land plots, it has recently created a position for an agricultural coordinator, who would work to encourage the use of these lands, and it has set aside a salary of $70,000. The position has been available since July 1, but no one has yet been appointed.

Way Beyond Tree Hugging

According to a report by Eric Ferkenhoff published by Time magazine, “Chicago is now among the largest users of green energy in the country, with a goal of using renewable energy for a quarter of city operations.”

The Windy City has won numerous international awards for its environmental agenda, and, according to Ferkenhoff’s report, the city boasts the world’s only municipal building recognized with a platinum rating for its green design and operations which was awarded by the organization Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

Former Mayor Richard Daley packed the city full of trees, flowers, planters and rooftop gardens (see Chicago City Hall–the country’s first rooftop garden on a municipal building), public parks and urban farm sites. He was criticized for focusing too much on “aesthetics,” but Daley said it wasn’t just about beautification. He brought in researchers to address city council members who showed the effects of this project (since 2002) and its direct link to lowering crime rates, improving test scores, boosting real estate values and providing jobs.

Chicago’s Greening Network ([]) provides information about the city’s co-op and community gardens built on formerly empty lots. The website provides community garden maps, locations of school gardens and urban agricultural sites, as well as information on how to obtain grants and funding. –Shantel Grace

So What’s the Deal With Tusitala Street?

Twenty years ago, in the very first issue of Honolulu Weekly, a story was published on the mass eviction of low-income residents on Tusitala Street. Located in the center of Waikiki, the land was bought with the intent of developing luxury high-rise condos.

Sixteen years later, the only progress those lots have seen is the growth of brown grass and a steady collection of debris. Over the past decade, local residents approached neighborhood and district boards complaining about the vacant lot: it’s an eyesore, it’s littered with garbage and it’s a prime piece of land that is wasting away, when it could instead be transformed into a small park or garden for the surrounding residents. Official reports show that these statements were to be taken into consideration, but their voices went unheard.

The Okada Trucking Co., Ltd., a construction and development company, bought the lot in the 1990s. On their website they label the company as “a major player in Hawaii,” with an array of ongoing projects throughout the Island.

When the Weekly contacted them in regards to the lot, an employee who wishes to be identified only as “Gavin” says “We are still going to develop [the lot]” but confirmed that there is no timeline in place. When the Weekly emphasized that the lot had gone undeveloped since its purchase almost two decades ago, the response was a curt “yup.”

One factor that contributed to the delay of development was the discovery that it was once a burial ground, where sacred remains of ancient Hawaiians were buried. When this happens, developers must go through the proper legal channels in removing and relocating the remains.

Cathi Uyemura-Reyes, an agent from Global Executive Realty in Waikiki, says that the main concern of people looking at properties on Tusitala Street is that they don’t know if once they move in whether or not huge buildings will swallow the street and the view. If condos with large numbers of residents are eventually developed, “there may be a traffic situation because it’s a tiny, narrow street,” says Uyemura-Reyes, adding “and there is no view protection.”

Bryn Kaufman, VP of Realty Executives Oahu, says “while there might be some units that are on a high floor next to the lot that are concerned about the view, most units on this street are not selling particularly for spectacular views.”

The scrappy lots don’t go unnoticed by potential renters and buyers, said Kaufman. “Anyone looking to buy on that street will ask about the lot, what might be built there, are there any plans now, and then they would think about how it could affect their life.” That being said, buyers may consider the potential of the lot. “If something opened up that was attractive to a buyer in that space, it could help with sales in the area. For example, perhaps a fitness club with plenty of parking might be attractive to people there who could then join and have a club almost at their doorstep,” added Kaufman.