Sunday, January 28, 2001
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Posted on: Sunday, January 28, 2001

Cayetano and his 'vision' could use a reality check

By Webster Nolan

Myth-making, like stealth politics, is a long-established tradition in Hawaii.

The latest legend-in-the-making appears to be Gov. Ben Cayetano’s "vision" for Kakaako makai, where he proposes to establish a "world class" aquarium, a new campus for the UH medical school, a science and technology center, an expanded children’s center and various other "cultural" attractions.

Sadly, both daily newspapers have endorsed the concept editorially, giving an impression that this highly questionable project deserves widespread public support and thereby helping to establish the myth of worthiness even before the debate begins.

Cayetano builds his narrative by saying that business, labor and other leaders support the development. Just for good measure, he takes a swipe at potential critics by suggesting they are people with "small minds."

Still lacking is factual information about the cost, management and impact of the project. The governor told the Legislature he’d ask for $50 million for the aquarium (to be supplemented by a $20 million private money-raising effort), and $10 million to get the ball rolling on the medical school campus. Then a few days later, he was quoted by KITV as telling the Kakaako Improvement Association he’ll ask for $140 million for the first two years.

If that weren’t confusing enough, we still know very little about how the complex would be managed and what its effect might be on the nearby community and traffic.

The purpose of the project, according to Cayetano, is to "showcase" Hawaii’s cultural history and achievements in science and technology, and to make it a gathering place for residents and visitors. This is the language of myth, not reality. So let’s ask a couple of real world questions: "Who would be the winners in this project and who would be the losers?"

Who wins? Well, the medical school would get a nice campus near the ocean, and faculty and students would have a spectacular place to eat lunch, though there’s little about teaching or researching medicine that would seem to require such an idyllic setting.

In fact, the school has said that one reason its wants to move from the Manoa campus to downtown is to be closer to the Queen’s Medical Center, so maybe the large parcel of state property across the street from that hospital would be an even better locale.

Another winner would be the Bishop Museum, although its role in the Kakaako scheme is deeply mysterious at the moment. (Stealth politics?) Would the museum be put in charge of planning, building and running the proposed science and technology center? Does it have the expertise to do that kind of work? What’s the plan? Where’s the money to come from?

Another set of big winners would be land owners who would profit by leasing or selling property to companies that want to locate near the Kakaako makai project.

Who would be the losers?

First and foremost, our public schools. The Cayetano "vision" is a luxury. The schools are a necessity. If there is any "extra" money around, it should go toward desperately needed repairs and a system that provides pay increases, testing, and merit incentives for teachers. And let’s not forget how heavily the Hawaii economy depends on California, which is going through a rough time right now.

Other losers? The several hundred thousand people who live on or near the Leeward side. An earlier "vision" by an earlier generation of politicians called for a Second City to stimulate that area’s badly depressed economy, provide jobs, and energize a part of Oahu that has gotten the short end of the stick for many years.

If the state insists on spending money for a science and technology center, why not place it near the new UH Leeward campus? And if the governor persists in building a "world-class" aquarium, why not locate it near the slowly developing resort area at Ko Olina?

Another big loser group would be commuters to and residents of the urban core of Honolulu. Already the traffic is so bad that Jeremy Harris wants to take away lanes from autos and trucks and give them to buses, one of several puzzling proposals put forward by the mayor to deal with near-gridlock on the streets.

The creation of the Cayetano project at Kakaako makai would certainly lead to spill-over development mauka of Ala Moana, with more high rises and the dark shadows they cast, more traffic tie-ups and the stress they bring, and more burdens on the infrastructure. Sure, the planners will talk about "open view planes" and pocket parks and all that good stuff. But, in a word, the project will increase urban density at a time when common sense cries for relief.

Finally, another group of losers would be the current users of the park. Maybe the oceanside paths and greenery would remain, but getting there through a maze of buildings and trying to find parking would prove unwelcoming.

The Hawaii Community Development Authority, the quasi-secret state agency that controls much of Kakaako makai, states on its Web site that the overall plan is "to create a gathering place with an abundance of parks and open spaces, spacious tree-lined streets and sidewalks that enhance and enrich Hawaii’s outdoor environment."

This seems to suggest a "world class" park that could also fit Cayetano’s zeal to "showcase" Hawaii. And it would be a lot cheaper and a lot friendlier.

Let’s hope that all the legislators who talk about the importance of schools and those who represent the Leeward side and urban Honolulu take a very close, non-mythical look at this proposal.

Webster Nolan, a retired journalist, lives in Kaka‘ako.

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