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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, January 26, 2004

City to beautify Kuhio Avenue

By James Gonser
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

Just a five-minute walk from one of the most famous beach resorts in the world lies a rundown neighborhood that looks more like an urban jungle than an island paradise.

The city released this illustration of planned upgrades for Kuhio Avenue in Waikiki — more trees, grass and historic lighting — all designed to improve the quality of life in an area where dark corners often hide criminal activities.

A $19 million beautification project will widen sidewalks and add landscaping on Kuhio Avenue.

City and County of Honolulu photo illustrations

Kuhio Avenue, the main thoroughfare in residential Waikiki, epitomizes the area. It is a crude, gray, back-alley kind of place where the area's 20,000 residents are more likely to see garbage than glamour, belching buses than tropical beauty.

With its delivery trucks and bars, homeless people and hookers, Kuhio Avenue is a world away from the sandy shore, designer shops and grand hotels perched along Kalakaua Avenue and Waikiki Beach.

"Kalakaua Avenue is like Rodeo Drive, and Kuhio is like the projects," said Scott Jaye, who hands out fliers in front of the Food Galaxy Restaurant & Coffee Shop in the 2300 block of Kuhio Avenue. "It's so dark on Kuhio, some people are afraid to walk here at night. You got the drug dealers and the prostitutes. ... Kuhio Avenue looks like hell."

That's about to change.

As Mayor Jeremy Harris begins his final year in office, the city is poised to start work in Waikiki on the last major capital improvement project of his term — a $19 million sidewalk-widening and beautification project on Kuhio Avenue.

That's far less than the $50 million spent on Kalakaua since 1997, but still a considerable investment in a long-neglected area. It will be the first significant work on Kuhio Avenue in more than two decades.

Harris said the project would begin the transformation of the street and lead to decreased crime, more private investment and a general sense of well-being for the area's residents. The Kuhio Avenue project is expected to be finished before he leaves office in December, and will complete the last stage of improvements in Waikiki that began with work on Kalakaua Avenue seven years ago.

"Kuhio Avenue is the largest single area in Waikiki that has not been upgraded," Harris said. "It is the area that most needs revitalization.

"We want to bring to it the same sort of improvements that have been brought to Kalakaua, so it will have wider sidewalks paved with quartzite paving stones. It will have just under 500 additional trees planted along Kuhio, grass and landscaping and better historic lighting, hanging flower baskets — all to improve the quality of life."

Kuhio Avenue will also have a landscaped median, public benches, redesigned traffic lanes and anti-crime street lighting to eliminate the dark corners that hide drug dealing, prostitution and other criminal activities.

Contracts have been awarded for the work, which will begin in a few weeks. The contractors have developed a traffic-control plan coordinated by the construction manager. The city has received noise permits to work during the day and sometimes at night.

Waikiki resident C.R. "Chuck" Benson wants the narrow, cracked sidewalks improved because many fellow residents are elderly and more prone to injury.

"It's dangerous," Benson said. "What we've got right now is different sections of sidewalk that are raised up from a half-inch to a couple inches."

Crossing the busy four-lane thoroughfare — the primary public transit corridor — can be risky, particularly for the elderly, and Benson said he also would like to see clearer crosswalks and more pedestrian crossing signals.

Mary Lee Leach, 70, said there are problems with homeless people and drunks using the streets and bushes as toilets, which a cleanup of the area could help eliminate.

"I think our Kuhio Avenue should look better," said Leach, resident manager of a small apartment building on Kai'olu Street.

"The sidewalks are cracked. It is generally bad. The tourists are so disappointed when they walk down Kuhio."

She has noticed what a little care can do.

"This is an old building, and I do have plants and things," Leach said. "I do notice that people, when they are very drunk or something, will often be careful when they walk by the building, because it looks better."

Harris said all the businesses along Kuhio Avenue have agreed to support the project by paying for improvements in front of their businesses to match with the sidewalks being installed by the city.

"If you look nationally, areas that go through renewal and upgrade, there is usually a decrease in street crime," Harris said.

"There are a lot of socioeconomic factors that go along with that — increased pride, increased number of pedestrians, commercial activity — that end up deferring that kind of street crime. I think what we will see is that when it is upgraded and we take the same kind of pride in Kuhio we have taken on Kalakaua, it will be reflected in lower crime numbers."

Cheryl Soon, city transportation director, said there would continue to be two traffic lanes in each direction, with some changes at key intersections to accommodate left turns and buses. Kuhio is the designated route for the city's proposed high-capacity Bus Rapid Transit system.

"The 'fifth' lane in the middle will mostly still be for turning, but many of the painted dead spaces, especially at the two ends — Kapahulu and Kalakaua — will have landscaped medians, which will add to the attractiveness," Soon said.

Waikiki Neighborhood Board member Jeff Apaka said residents would make good use of the improvements, and he hoped it would encourage development of more mom-and-pop shops and restaurants with outside dining.

"We're looking for better lights, and sidewalks to be cleaned up," Apaka said. "We need safer mauka-makai streets for walking and for the visitors to go to the Ala Wai Canal, sit on the benches, to look at our beautiful mountain range, to connect the tourists with our 'aina."

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