172-acre project proposed for Hilo
By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau
HILO, Hawai'i Spurred by a hot real estate market and an urgent need for housing for college students, a Spokane, Wash., company is proposing the largest new housing and commercial development in Hilo in two decades.
By comparison, the largest mall on the Big Island is the Prince Kuhio Plaza in Hilo, which has 504,000 square feet of retail space.
The project is opposed by neighbors who worry it may aggravate flooding problems in urban Hilo and will cause a dramatic increase in traffic.
Wally Wilson, who owns a home near the site of the proposed project, said Hilo's special charm is its green, open spaces, and the project will wipe out a forested area that today serves as a buffer between four neighborhoods of single-family homes.
"To me it's just ludicrous, it's just very, very poor planning," said Wilson, president of the Sunrise Ridge Homeowners Association, an organization of residents who live just south of the project. "We're not saying no development. We're just saying think of the neighborhood around you, around this area."
Western United Life hired former Big Island Mayor Stephen Yamashiro as project manager. Yamashiro hired former county planning director Virginia Goldstein to help with the rezoning application pending before the County Council.
Yamashiro said University Terrace would fill in the last major piece of privately owned land in the center of Hilo.
Development of the site will change the neighborhood, but "everything changes a neighborhood. It has been general-planned for this use for 25 years," he said.
"People like the tree-lined border they have now; they don't want it taken down, but somebody's going to do something with it," Yamashiro said.
A previous owner won county approvals to build an 18-hole golf course and a five-acre commercial development on the property, but later gave up on the project.
County officials want the new developer to build a $5 million extension of Ponahawai Street, from Komohana Street to Mohouli Street, as a condition of the rezoning, a step that planning director Chris Yuen said would improve traffic flow in the area.
Yuen said his office supports the project as a way to create more housing in Hilo at a time when demand and rents are increasing.
"You have to ask yourself, if people don't get to live in this area, where are they going to live?" Yuen said.
The alternative may be that people who work in Hilo will have to live in Puna or other surrounding areas, increasing commuter traffic on the roads into town, he said.
To help prevent flooding, the county is requiring that the project not allow runoff from the site into the surrounding area. That is a standard county condition in all rezonings, but area residents are skeptical that the developer will be able to contain the runoff on site.
One controversial piece of the proposal is a plan to put apartments along Komohana Street. Yamashiro said those apartments would be designed for the growing student enrollment at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo, and for young professionals who want to live in the area.
The proposed zoning would allow for apartment buildings 10 stories high, which would tower over all other structures in the area, but the Planning Department has proposed limiting the height to about four stories.
Cheryl Reis, a retired police major who has lived in the area for 27 years, told the County Council the development could add 3,000 residents and 1,500 vehicles to the neighborhood, not including additional traffic generated by the project's commercial center.
Reis said University Terrace is not appropriate for the area, and that residents have been eager to sign a petition seeking to block it.
So far, critics of the project have collected 400 signatures, she said.
The proposal is pending before the council's Planning Committee.
Yamashiro said the developer plans to obtain the zoning, prepare lots and sell them, with buildout completed in about 10 years.
Prices would begin in the $200,000 range for townhouses, and he is confident demand will be strong.
"It is a very active market," Yamashiro said. "Part of it is, I think, people have found Hilo."
Reach Kevin Dayton at firstname.lastname@example.org or (808) 935-3916.