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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 20, 2003

Bustling Kapolei quickly evolving into urban center

By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Central O'ahu Writer

Commuters make use of the new Kapolei Transit Center, where express buses pick up passengers for the long ride into town.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

The way 16-year-old Edward Afualo describes Kapolei High School — more buildings, more people, more choices for lunch — he could've been describing the city itself.

And his mixed feelings toward the changes at his school echo those of residents who are also conflicted with the area's rapid growth.

On one hand, the influx of people to Kapolei — from about 35,000 in 1991 to 70,000 today — has brought the community the luxuries of a big city, from restaurants to doctors to schools. But with progress comes problems, with residents complaining about increased traffic and crime in their once quiet country town.

The same goes for Kapolei High.

Before the end of the month the school will have its first-ever senior class, a group of about 400 students who started as freshmen when the campus had just three buildings. Today the school has 1,350 students with a dozen sand-colored buildings. In August it opens its gym and locker rooms. By June it will have a football stadium, too.

"Before you could get to class fast, no problem," said Afualo, a soon-to-be senior, all-state swimmer and student body president from Kapolei. "Now there's traffic."

Michele Howard and Ashley Kerber walk across the Kapolei High School campus, which has grown to about a dozen sand-colored buildings.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

The residents of Kapolei and Makakilo know all too well the issue of traffic. Their congested roadways have been a recurring complaint at neighborhood board and community meetings for years.

In response, the state Department of Transportation has scheduled to begin the construction of several projects aimed at alleviating traffic in Kapolei, including the much-anticipated four-lane North-South Road in 2005.

Even the city got involved in traffic improvements by investing $1.4 million in the Kapolei Transit Center, the first of the city's new hub-and-spoke bus route system that unites neighborhood circulator lines with express service into town. The bus transit center, considered the model for future centers, opened July 8.

And with more families moving into the area, Kapolei needed more than just McDonald's and Safeway.

In November Kapolei Marketplace opened with Blockbuster and eating options ranging from Quizno's subs to sit-down, full-service Chinese cuisine. The city has its own Taste of Kapolei and its version of "Sunset on the Beach."

In February, Kapolei finally got a bar. With two pool tables, three dartboards, a cigar bar, karaoke, live entertainment and $2.50 beers, T-Spot Hideaway in Kapolei Marketplace has become the go-to place for pau hana and late-night noshing.

"We've got growing pains, we have real major concerns," said Maeda Timson, longtime Makakilo resident and chairwoman of the Makakilo/Kapolei/Honokai Hale Neighborhood Board. "Traffic and education are probably the pains in our sides in being this growing city. ... But it's been good growth. And it isn't a surprise to anyone. When you moved here, you knew this was a budding city."

First seniors

Tex Suter, left, of Makakilo and Jen Pfeiffer of San Francisco chat at T Spot Hideaway, the first bar in fast-growing Kapolei.

Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser

Ashley Kerber isn't sure how to feel about her senior year.

She's excited, but there's a unique pressure in being part of the first senior class of Kapolei High.

"I don't feel like a senior yet," said the 17-year-old from Makakilo, waiting for cheerleading practice to start one hot afternoon. "Our school just hasn't felt like a high school. ... It's so weird."

This senior class began as freshmen — and the only class on campus. Each year the school added one more class. Finally, in the fall, it will boast four full grade levels.

There's a buzz about Kapolei High, since it's the first traditional public high school to open since Kaiser High in 1971.

"Everything is new for us, everything is a first," said Robin Ogino, the school's student activities coordinator. "We've been telling them for four years they're going to lead the school, and now it's starting to sink in, the reality is starting to hit. There is a sense of urgency now that wasn't there before. These kids had no one to follow. They are the trailblazers."

The new Kapolei Marketplace adds much-needed new shops and restaurants to the area, including a Blockbuster video rental store.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

But these seniors haven't experienced the kind of high school life they heard about from cousins or watched in movies.

"We came to school with no idea of what high school life was like," said Warren Simanu, 17, a standout football and basketball player from Honokai Hale. "We had no one to look up to."

Not to mention, no grand homecomings or senior proms.

But that has fueled an all-out effort to make their senior — and last — year memorable.

The students are hoping to organize a Thanksgiving dance with an admission charge of canned goods for the school's food drive. They're thinking about a Mardi Gras festival for Halloween. And they're already planning their senior prom.

"We feel the pressure to set traditions, to be good," Afualo said. "We're feeling the panic. The seniors want to be more involved now. It's our last year, it's on us."

They realize the responsibility of being the first graduating class at Kapolei, but they're more worried about the senior projects and finals week they know await them.

"I'm not nervous to be the first graduating class," said 16-year-old Leilani Sapolu from Makakilo.

"I just want to graduate."

Football pride

One source of pride for Kapolei has been the school's football team.

Jensen Pruse looks on while John Dela Rama works out in Kapolei High School’s new weight room. Both Pruse and Dela Rama will be seniors this fall and are teammates on the school’s football team.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

The Hurricanes, who finished last season with five wins and two losses, played their home games at Pearl City High School. The players worked out in the band uniform room, which was converted into a temporary weight room.

But this summer the school opened a state-of-the-art weight room, fully equipped with free weights and plate-loaded machines. Though the team may not be able to play in its own stadium until the 2004-05 season, the seniors are excited they might be able to graduate in it.

"We want to start one tradition," said Jensen Pruse, 17, who plays center and has been lifting weights every day, all summer. "We want to be good people on and off the field."

Like the city, Kapolei High is coming into its own. The stadium, coaches and players say, will be the final step in completing the campus in the middle of housing developments and empty lots.

"Every year the facilities have gotten better," said Darren Camello, boys' basketball head coach and assistant coach for football. "(The stadium) will be awesome. It'll be the last piece of the puzzle."

In Hawai'i, so much of people's identities are tied into the school they graduated from. It's not uncommon for someone to open an introduction with "How school you went?" Now Kapolei and Makakilo, whose teenagers once had to travel to 'Ewa Beach to attend Campbell High School, will have alumni solidifying the image of the community as a bona fide city.

"I think the whole community is trying to find itself," Ogino said. "And the school's trying to find itself, too."

Reach Catherine E. Toth at 535-8103 or ctoth@honoluluadvertiser.com.