Plans joining old, new hold promise in Kaka'ako
By John Griffin
My vote for one of Hawai'i's big success stories of the past decade goes to Kaka'ako, the still largely underdeveloped area between downtown Honolulu and Ala Moana Center.
Advertiser library photo June 3, 2003
Workers can be seen through a prefab wall section at the new John A. Burns School of Medicine being built in Kaka'ako, the centerpiece of a "research park" that could bring jobs and money to the area.
Advertiser library photo June 3, 2003
But there are also questions about this area of slow growth and new promise that is 30 acres larger than Waikiki. Among them:
Will a research industry really emerge on state and private land around the University of Hawai'i's new medical school, now under construction on the makai portion of Ala Moana near the Waterfront Park?
Will an inspired recreational-educational area be developed on state land by Kewalo Basin from Fisherman's Wharf restaurant to the Point Panic surfing spot? That's where businessman-politico Andy Anderson four years ago lost out on his bid for a facility featuring a giant Ferris wheel.
Will Kamehameha Schools, which owns some 50 acres in Kaka'ako, finally get going on its long-delayed and now-revised development plans?
Will Victoria Ward Ltd., Kaka'ako's other major private land-owner and development star in recent years, continue as a progressive and sensitive performer? Ownership has shifted from local hands to national mall-owning giant General Growth Properties, which also controls neighboring Ala Moana Center.
With the state and private giants making and executing major development plans, what's the future for small businesses and landowners? They own some 53 percent of Kaka'ako and provide essential services, from auto repair to lampshade making to plate-lunch restaurants.
What's the future for the Hawai'i Community Development Authority, especially now that highly regarded executive director of seven years Jan Yokota has departed to guide capital improvements for UH-Manoa?
Not only is this understaffed state agency responsible for overseeing the special district of Kaka'ako (bounded by Punchbowl, King and Pi'ikoi streets and the waterfront from Kewalo Basin to Pier 4), but HCDA also has been given jurisdiction over Kalaeloa, formerly Barbers Point. Some would add the Aloha Tower development area to HCDA oversight.
Right now, major focus is on Kaka'ako's makai portion. This is mostly state land, the site of the new medical school and adjoining biomedical research facility. These would be the core of a "research park" that could spread initially to include the cancer research center, the old Gold Bond Building (which UH would take over) and a strip of Kamehameha Schools land on Ala Moana Boulevard that would house private research companies.
I'm not qualified to say what the odds are that all this will reach the critical mass of a major new industry employing thousands and spinning off housing, stores, etc. But I am impressed with the enthusiasm of veteran Kaka'ako observers for the venture, current and new research, and high regard for its point person, UH medical school dean Edwin Cadman, who has major Mainland credentials.
UH President Evan Dobelle says he's most proud that he got the new med school under construction in 18 months, and remains confident he can raise the rest of a needed $150 million from federal and private sources. Others are watching and waiting as the buildings go up.
Mindful of our struggling convention center, some ask, "What if you build it and they don't come?" Dobelle says a modern new medical school and adjoining biomed research facility are needed regardless, and nothing else will be built without contracts or grants.
The Kewalo Basin development may have an aquarium and marine research facility near Point Panic that could tie in with other nearby research. HCDA is still working on this. But the area could include a farmers market relocated from the Victoria Ward property across Ala Moana Boulevard, and some say that company could bid for the entire Kewalo project. The most mentioned model for all this is Granville Island in Vancouver, a mixture of shops, restaurants, entertainment and arts, and housing.
Victoria Ward gets high marks from just about everyone for the way it turned sleepy Auahi Street into a vibrant shop-movie-dine center that caters mostly to local folks. So far, new owner General Growth is credited with letting that continue under general manager Jeff Dinsmore. He worked for years with former Victoria Ward president Mitch D'Olier, a guiding light who sees Kaka'ako as a "symbol of a new Hawai'i."
Dinsmore talks of a new-old concept of retailing, away from internalized malls and toward putting more on the streets, as was once the case here and elsewhere. This 24-7 view fits Victoria Ward property, with its many bisecting streets, he says.
With more high-rise and other housing coming or planned, it will be interesting to see how Victoria Ward develops its part of the urban village that should include tree-lined streets, bike paths, etc. It still has some three-quarters of its land to work with.
Kamehameha Schools and Victoria Ward last year sponsored a new Kaka'ako regional plan done by Cooper, Robertson & Partners, a New York firm recommended by Dobelle.
Unveiled earlier this year, it divides the area into quadrants divided by Ala Moana Boulevard and Cooke Street. One makai quadrant would be mostly the UH research park. Adjoining would be the Kewalo Basin project, plus parking and open space. The third would be taken up largely by Victoria Ward's Auahi "Main Street" complex.
The fourth, largely Kamehameha Schools land near South Street, focuses on the idea of a "learning community." It would include some school facilities and possibly parts of Hawai'i Pacific University and even UH. ("Why not?" says Dobelle. "Maybe parts of Chaminade, too. We are collaborative about education.")
All this was enthusiastically explained to me by Sanford Murata, Kamehameha Schools director of commercial assets. He talked about Kaka'ako becoming "the new heart of Honolulu, a place where people will live, work and play, and maybe won't even want to own a car." Trustees will refine the plan, he said.
That reminded me that the word I have heard most often about Kamehameha Schools in Kaka'ako is "slow" to implement plans. "It's OK to have a master plan, but what you need most is a development strategy," said one business leader.
Kamehameha Schools policy of leasing and not selling its land is also seen by some as a problem, not so much for business use, but for any residential condominiums it wants to develop, which would face the leasehold conversion law. One business veteran suggested the landowner could exchange some of its potential housing sites in Kaka'ako for commercial property elsewhere, allowing for fee-simple condo sales.
Kamehameha Schools, under the respected Murata, seems focused first on the biomed research potential. But it also is letting many of its old mauka area leases expire, including many old warehouse sites and the valuable land under Comp USA. In a few years, its broader plans should become reality or at least many others in Kaka'ako hope so.
Obviously, Kaka'ako's small landowners often families who don't want to sell ultimately will be affected by what the state and other big landowners do. Property values and taxes should go up, in some cases making it tougher for small business.
Still, what's most impressive to me is the degree of mutual understanding and cooperation between big and small owners and businesses. Important in this picture are the Kaka'ako Improvement Association, with more than 120 small businesses, and the Ala MoanaiKaka'ako Neighborhood Board, which has had to deal with much more contention nearby around the Convention Center, Wal-Mart project and hostess bars.
One issue where differences emerge is housing. The business group and neighborhood board stress a mix of housing and business on the mauka portion of Kaka'ako. The HCDA favors midrange (not high-rise) housing on parts of the makai land, in part to serve the research area, in part to help enliven the area at night.
Looking to the future, HCDA faces the challenge of first replacing the talented and popular Jan Yokota (some 50 people have applied). It must keep its makai projects on track. At the same time, it needs to revisit its rules to help stimulate development mauka of Ala Moana Boulevard as well.
Lori Lum, HCDA board chair for more than three years, sees Kaka'ako not only as an economic development engine and pleasant urban village, but also a waterfront area where visitors and residents can meet.
Now-departed executive director Yokota says the big challenge is to keep the planning and development momentum going.
Finally, many recall that before it became an industrial and warehouse district, Kaka'ako was a vibrant low-income neighborhood in the years before World War II.
The goal now is to blend some of that old feeling with new urban excitement and maybe a type of economic development where knowledge is an export. For me, it's a gamble worth taking.
While talking to a dozen or so people along the way, several made a point I appreciate: Kaka'ako at its core has no major physical characteristics that can be enhanced, as you can in places like Chinatown or maybe my Kaimuki. But it's got a history and ambiance that amounts to character. So it is both a clean canvas to paint upon, and an asset that calls for respect as it redevelops yet again.
John Griffin, former editor of The Advertiser's editorial pages, is a frequent contributor.