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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Wal-Mart opening puts traffic theories to test

 •  Map; Traffic flow around superblock

By Andrew Gomes
Advertiser Staff Writer

After nearly five years of work negotiating land purchases, fighting legal challenges, building support, countering protests and dealing with human bone discoveries, Wal-Mart opens its first urban Honolulu store today.

Betty Jo Sellers, left, and Kilita Petelo price movies at Wal-Mart's Ke'eaumoku store. Unlike other Hawai'i Wal-Mart stores, it will offer wide-screen plasma and LCD TVs, as well as more Asian foods.

Photos by Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Craig Tengan, left, and Kamuela Kaaikala stock shelves with candy at Hawai'i's newest Wal-Mart. Unlike other Wal-Mart stores that are open 24 hours, the Ke'eaumoku store's hours are 6 a.m. to midnight.
The 150,000-square-foot store on the Ke'eaumoku superblock opens at 9 a.m. After today, operating hours will be from 6 a.m to midnight.

Some area residents have long feared the worst about traffic congestion, and said today will give them a good idea if their predictions of gridlock prove true.

"We know the traffic going flood in this area," said Roy Nakamura, who lives on Cedar Street, one block 'ewa of the mauka end of the store's 1,700-stall parking structure.

The discount retailer said business will be "everyday low prices" as usual, with no special offers to entice the hordes of shoppers that are expected anyway.

"We expect customers to be here bright and early," said Cynthia Lin, spokeswoman for the Arkansas-based retail giant.

The opening is only half of the massive double-decker project: A 150,000-square-foot members-only Sam's Club is scheduled to open Oct. 21 on top of Wal-Mart.

Merchandise in the Ke'eau-moku store will be similar to what other Wal-Marts carry, though this store will be the first in Hawai'i to sell wide-screen plasma and LCD TVs. The store also will have wider aisles and more Asian foods than other Wal-Mart Hawai'i stores.

Wal-Mart has done work to ease potential traffic jams by widening streets, creating left-turn lanes and modifying and adding traffic signals.

The company also has been running advertisements to inform consumers where the store's four entrances and exits are, and has hired about a dozen off-duty police officers to direct traffic today and for the next two weeks. Another 20 or so Wal-Mart employees will direct traffic on store property.

A consultant hired by Wal-Mart has estimated that the afternoon weekday vehicle traffic would peak at about 650 vehicles per hour entering and exiting the four-story parking structure.

The consultant, local engineering firm Austin Tsutsumi & Associates Inc., projected that on weekends, peak hourly traffic would swell to an estimated 1,100 vehicles.

Doris Nakamura, who lives in a fifth-floor Sheridan Street unit across from Wal-Mart's ramp to Sam's Club and upper parking decks, said she expects cars will clog Sheridan.

"I'm afraid we're going to see the residents unable to get out of their properties easily," she said. "We'll have to see."

More bothersome already, she said, is the lighting around the store. "At night it feels like Las Vegas is here," Nakamura said. "It's very disruptive."

Jim Becker, an area resident who led a citizens' group opposing Wal-Mart and challenged project permits approved by the city, said he can nearly read by the light that shines from the Wal-Mart site across Ke'eaumoku into his condominium about 50 yards away.

But Becker said he was pleased the retailer decided to limit its operating hours from 6 a.m. to midnight. "Closing at midnight is a giant step in making this place habitable," he said. Some Wal-Mart stores stay open 24 hours.

Still, the 78-year-old retired war correspondent said he won't be among Wal-Mart's customers. "I wouldn't darken their door with a gun (pointed at) my back," he said.

Many neighborhood residents, however, have expressed support for Wal-Mart, which drew little opposition from the neighborhood board four years ago after the retailer shared its plans.

Wal-Mart in late 2002 collected 12,000 signatures from consumers at its other O'ahu stores in support of the Honolulu store. The store is Wal-Mart's third on O'ahu and the seventh in the state.

Last year, the unearthing of ancient Hawaiian human remains during the project's construction caused controversy as work progressed. That conflict flared again in recent weeks, when the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. protested that the remains should have been reburied before the opening.

Families recognized as descendants submitted two competing reburial plans and met last weekend to resolve their differences, said Dan Davidson, deputy director of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, the agency that oversees the state native burials law. However, he said, they were unable to come to terms.

Advertiser staff writer Vicki Viotti contributed to this report.

Reach Andrew Gomes at agomes@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8065.