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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 31, 2002

Waikiki as home

By James Gonser
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

Residential Waikiki has become as stagnant as the long-neglected Ala Wai Canal.

Pomai Akiona pays a visit to great-aunt Kuualoha Bishaw and great-uncle Jack Bishaw at their Kuhio Avenue apartment, one of the residential units tucked between the high-rises that dominate the resort district.

Advertiser library photo

There has been no growth and no development in a decade. Poor lighting, cracked or uneven sidewalks, no sidewalks in places, abandoned cars, old mattresses and garbage left on the streets characterize the area. Much of residential Waikiki is neglected and ugly.

As the residential area has declined, the city has invested $50 million on the beach and business side of Waikiki in an effort to bring the luster back to the tourist mecca.

Now, changes to residential Waikiki are coming. New lighting, better sidewalks and other improvements are planned for Kuhio Avenue. The first new residential construction since the 1980s is to begin this year. Other planning efforts aimed at improving the area are under way.

The changes will help, residents and experts say. But they add that the area will never become what it could be — not just a great destination but a great place to live — without appropriate development and improvements in how zoning is done.

However, barring a sea change in how Waikiki is viewed by government officials, residents in the years ahead can expect only gradual evolution through reasonable improvements, not transformation.

Tourism first

The Ala Wai Canal separates Waikiki from an area more characteristic of a Honolulu neighborhood.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Mayor Jeremy Harris said he doesn't differentiate between the residential and business sections of Waikiki. He said the tens of millions of dollars in work already done benefits everyone by providing a more attractive place to live and work.

But the popular view is that tourism is what matters here. Where the tarnished area from Kuhio

Avenue to the Ala Wai Canal and down to the Ala Wai Yacht Harbor bumps up against the sparkle of Kalakaua Avenue, it's difficult to argue with that assessment.

City Councilman Duke Bainum said Waikiki is a delicate balance between residential and business areas. There is no need for a major push for new residential development, he said.

"There are some aging low-rises that should be replaced by new residential dwellings," Bainum said. "As our population ages, Waikiki becomes an ideal place for elderly residents. On the other hand, Waikiki is our primary economic area and we cannot squeeze that out. We must allow the visitor industry to flourish."

Creating a unique Waikiki

Louis Cruz on his bike, a police patrol, an older resident walking the dog — such is what you'll see in the shadows of resort high-rises.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

Visions for residential Waikiki range from creating wide promenades running from the ocean to the canal that defines the mauka border of the area, with sidewalk cafés and mom-and-pop shops, to enlarging the already strong retirement community with upscale condominiums, to simply making minor infrastructure improvements and letting the community evolve on its own.

"I travel around the world, and I think the truly great destinations are also great places to live," said Karl Kim, a University of Hawai'i urban and regional planning professor. "If you think about Paris or San Francisco or London, other places that are really world-renowned urban locations, one thing that stands out about them is they are truly desirable places to live.

"I'm not sure you can say that about Waikiki."

Waikiki resident Jeff Apaka said making room for limited retail development such as restaurants and shops in the residential area would help create special neighborhoods like some in New York, give residents places to gather and become an additional draw for tourists.

"If we could just get some of the tax money that has been used to improve Kalakaua to help open some ma-and-pa stores on the mauka side of Kuhio Avenue, it would attract the people who don't want to shop in the Gucci-type stores," said Apaka, the Waikiki Community Center's director of community relations. "They could at least come over and see local people."

Peter Apo, director of the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association, said money has been tough to come by for residential community improvements.

Apo said giving developers zoning exemptions or tax credits to remodel their ground floors to accommodate resident services could help transform the area. Apo, the former director of the city's Office of Waikiki Development, suggested that the city designate a few mauka-makai streets as pedestrian corridors for this type of business development.

"Generally the private sector is worried about their own property; that's a natural business thing to do," Apo said. "They are finally beginning to take the time to be concerned about the entire district."

Jeff Apaka of Waikiki Community Center greets Gary Alpis, right, tending a hotel bar frequented by tourists like Dave Dell of Colorado.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

Residential Waikiki is the most densely populated area in the state. Its inhabitants include transient surfers, hotel workers and retirees living in high-rises, two- and three-story rental buildings and a few single-family homes. The population in 2000 was 19,720 and has remained steady in recent years, dropping by only 40 people since the 1990 census — a trend that reflects the absence of construction.

The Rev. Frank Chong, executive director of the Waikiki Health Center, said that 25 percent of Waikiki residents are 65 or older and that on any given day, 100 to 200 homeless people and an equal number of runaway teenagers populate the area.

The area is a draw for people from around the world, he said.

"Waikiki is the first port of entry if you speak English," Chong said. "If you are from the Mainland or Canada and want to move here, generally you start off in Waikiki. You can still pay by the day, week or month for rentals."

Ralph Shumay, resident manager of the Waipuna condominium on 'Ena Road, said people live in Waikiki for the convenience and excitement.

"From our building you can walk to Ala Moana Center, to the beach, into Waikiki," Shumay said. "There is a bus stop on almost every corner. You can walk out the door and catch a bus to anywhere you want.

"For the younger people, there is a lot of activity going on. It is the draw of the city. Waikiki is busy with taxis, tourists, ambulances; there is a bit of excitement to it. Some people enjoy that."

Tourists, residents

Ryusaku Nakamoto, left, picks up his friend Lori Matsui at a Lili'uokalani Avenue rental unit for a drive to their college classes.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

City investments in the tourism part of Waikiki have produced a new Kapi'olani Park Bandstand, a rebuilt police substation, new

light poles along Kalakaua Avenue, hundreds of new plants and trees and more room for sunbathers at a wider Kuhio Beach. Pedestrians stroll on renovated sidewalks at the Natatorium, in Kapi'olani Park, along Kuhio Beach and the Ala Wai Canal and on Kalakaua Avenue.

Now the city has begun $2.6 million in improvements in residential Waikiki. Besides street and sidewalk improvements and landscaping, the area will get a public park of its own and more parking spaces. A federal study to improve transportation is nearly complete.

The first new residential project in a decade here will break ground by the end of the year. A&B Properties Inc. plans to build a residential high-rise on a 70,000-square-foot site between Kalaimoku and 'Olohana streets.

Realtor Pat Buckman, who has more than 40 years experience selling property in Waikiki, estimates that one-third of Waikiki condominium owners are investors who live here only a few months of the year.

She said many smaller, older apartment buildings are ripe for development. If a few properties can be combined into bigger parcels they could be developed into larger, much-needed condominium sites, she said.

"I think we are going to continue to see more properties redeveloped and wealthy people moving into Waikiki," Buckman said. "Lower-income people, unless they already own, will be driven out."

Developers have shied away from Waikiki in recent years, saying that zoning regulations in residential areas are too restrictive, with large setbacks to provide open space and parking space requirements, and little room for commercial operations that could make a project feasible.

ABC Stores employee Keith Kawamoto says he has lived in Waikiki all his life. Just under 20,000 people make Waikiki their home.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

"It's easy to fall into a binary view of the world," said planner Kim. "This is tourist and this is residential. The very nature of zoning tends to do that. You are classifying according to allowable uses. We may have an outdated land-use regulatory system in Waikiki, and we might want to move more toward something that allows even more mixed uses such as restaurants in residential areas and vice versa."

Along these lines, Bainum has submitted a bill to amend Waikiki building regulations to allow flexibility in the commercial requirements. He said residents' opposition to development has been giving way to more cooperation.

"The residents want grocery stores and convenience shops, and they would like them to be affordable," Bainum said. "Right now you can't have a mom-and-pop store coming in because they would have to build so many parking spaces. They cost from between $25,000 and $45,000 each."

Meanwhile, other efforts are being made to tackle what have been grating problems for residents: nonstop traffic, a lack of parking and such crimes as thefts from cars, drug dealing and prostitution.

To alleviate traffic, residents want the city to require commercial vehicles to use Kalakaua Avenue rather than Kuhio. The city is proposing to condemn a vacant lot on Seaside Avenue at Aloha Drive to open up space for a park and public parking.

To fight crime, police helped residents form five citizens patrols in Waikiki. The community center's Apaka said brighter lighting also would help to deter crime.

An evolving Waikiki

Bob and Kinchau Bennett, right, live in Waikiki, the state's most densely populated area. The world-famous resort's restaurants, shops and recreation opportunities are just outside their door.

Eugene Tanner• The Honolulu Advertise

Bainum said a vision for residential Waikiki has been developing in master-planning sessions in the City Council for the federally financed Livable Communities Plan to improve transportation, at Neighborhood Board sessions, and during community meetings.

"The vision of placing an emphasis on the pedestrian environment and gathering places has been a recurring theme," Bainum said. "The chessboards on Kalakaua Avenue — that's us saying we know it is important for people to have a place to come together and visit.

"Just like any community, Waikiki benefits when people get together to talk, to visit, to learn from each other, and it becomes a better place. We've encouraged green space in the private development, with landscaping, tables to meet and talk, outside dining to encourage residential interaction with visitors."

The city's 1997 report "Living in Waikiki" kicked off the current phase of planning by gathering opinions from residents on what they would like to see in the future. The report concluded that residents support limited density, creating a pedestrian orientation, improving the Ala Wai Canal and nurturing a Hawaiian sense of place.

The Livable Communities Plan for Waikiki grew out of meetings and focus groups last year. In the project, which is supported by a $700,000 federal grant, residents were asked to give opinions on a range of transportation issues: shuttle bus operations, bicycle and pedestrian uses, access for the disabled, tour buses and delivery trucks, loading zones and refuse collection. Contractor Wilson Okamoto & Associates will hold a public meeting in the next few months to discuss the results of the focus groups and detail an implementation plan.

The Waikiki Vision Team has earmarked $150,000 for a Kuhio Avenue Master Plan, which will include new sidewalks, landscaping and lighting. An additional $50,000 for design work has been requested for next year.

Transforming Waikiki

Kim said the moves that the city is planning in terms of sidewalks and bike paths are consistent with an incremental approach toward change and an evolution of the neighborhood.

"If we want to accelerate the pace, part of that would be to increase the mix of uses," Kim said.

Kim said it is possible to have some type of development along the Ala Wai Canal without adding to Waikiki's congestion and commercialization.

"Some type of river walk development like San Antonio, where they have shops, but not just for tourists. Not completely built up, not wall to wall like Kuhio Avenue. Being able to show some restraint is part of the vision. The worst thing would be to have another Kuhio Avenue on the Ala Wai. What good would that do?"

Whatever the vision for Waikiki, Apo said, if an effort is made to create a Hawaiian sense of place and the residents are kept as part of the picture, the area will thrive.

"Brunch on the Beach is 60 percent local people," Apo said. "The tourists love it because, for a change, they get to sit next to real people that live here. No one wants to be considered a tourist. They want to be visitors. Not like a freak that just landed in a spaceship everyone avoids. When they are surrounded by local people it makes them feel more like a visitor and more welcome."

Reach James Gonser at jgonser@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2431.