Mo'ili'ili building upgrades to begin
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
By Mary Vorsino
A $3 million makeover of two rundown walk-ups to provide rentals and street-front commercial spaces in Mo'ili'ili is the first of several large projects Kamehameha Schools is expected to undertake in the community as it drafts a master plan for the area.
Some predict the apartment project will be the quiet start of a major revitalization of Mo'ili'ili over the next several decades, as stakeholders including Kamehameha Schools seek to enhance the potential of land in the urban neighborhood. As one of the largest landowners in Mo'ili'ili, Kamehameha Schools could very well lead the way in a transformation of the community, especially since most of its properties are along thoroughfares.
Along with the Kamehameha Schools master plan for Mo'ili'ili, the possibility of rail transit snaking through the community and signals that the University of Hawai'i-Manoa is interested in getting more involved with its neighbors has people talking about what the future of the area will look like — and they're anxious to hear proposals from the big players.
"The University of Hawai'i, Kamehameha Schools and rail transit are the three 800-pound gorillas in our room," said Grant Kagimoto, president of the Mo'ili'ili Community Center board.
"We're just trying to keep our eye on them."
Few details of what Kamehameha Schools sees for its 11.4 acres in Mo'ili'ili are available, but officials have said they want to unite their buildings along Beretania and South King streets, and University Avenue, with similar architectural themes — namely, a 1940s aesthetic that will be on display in their upcoming apartment renovation project.
"To the extent we can influence an architectural design that complements Mo'ili'ili's historical urban look and feel, we will try to do so," said Kekoa Paulsen, spokesman for Kamehameha Schools. "We would attempt to incorporate a similar architectural style in future renovations to create an attractive commercial street-front along this corridor."
Paulsen added that Kamehameha Schools plans to improve some or all of its more than 30 Mo'ili'ili properties one at a time. "People should see change happening in increments," he said.
Kamehameha Schools has been a longtime presence in Mo'ili'ili. But until recently, its properties have remained relatively unchanged.
Last year, it announced plans to kick off a master-planning process for Mo'ili'ili.
It also recently scooped up two of the most recognizable buildings in the community.
In 2007, Kamehameha Schools bought the landmark Varsity Theatre and adjoining offices. The year before, it purchased Puck's Alley, a maze of eateries, retailers and office spaces. There are no immediate plans for the Varsity Theatre, as it has serious structural problems, officials said. Puck's Alley, meanwhile, has gotten a new coat of paint, new lighting and new tenants.
But beyond that, its future is unclear.
The renovation work on the buildings at Isenberg and Beretania streets is scheduled to start in early summer and last six to eight months. When finished, the buildings will have 28 rental apartments on two upper floors and 3,600 square feet of commercial space at ground level, 600 square feet of which doesn't exist now.
The project at 2424 Beretania St. is tentatively being called University Town Square.
Paulsen said the buildings have been vacant for years and are in bad condition.
Kamehameha Schools envisions the street-front space at the property being used for gathering places — such as a cafe. But tenants for the commercial space have not been chosen. It is also unclear how much the apartments would rent for, though Paulsen said they won't be high-end.
An empty lot next door, used as a collection site for recyclables, will be a parking lot.
For many, the Kamehameha Schools master-planning project for the community, still in the early stages, is a recognition of the growing strategic importance of Mo'ili'ili, not only because it is butted up against the university, but because it could be a hub for the city's mass transit system.
UH also appears interested in getting more involved in the community.
A long-range development plan for the Manoa campus, approved late last year, said the relationship between the university and Mo'ili'ili should be stronger, and added that the campus could be an economic driver for the community if its commercial center were to grow.
For many in Mo'ili'ili, the developments are exciting and scary.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of community pride in Mo'ili'ili, loved by residents for its small-town feel, unique history and architectural gems. Passers-by may not share the feeling. Urban sprawl has been unkind to the community, whose pitted roads, squatty walk-ups and undersized infrastructure, including an inadequate sewer system, stunt growth.
In 2002, a UH-driven discussion of how to transform Mo'ili'ili into a "college town" spurred plenty of response from residents. But the plans went nowhere, which has some residents wary of more talk of revitalization.
Some also fear new developments will mean gentrification and the loss of affordable rentals and mom-and-pop shops.
Rebecca Ryan, executive director of the community center, said Mo'ili'ili is largely a community of renters, and residents don't want revitalization to push them out. Nearly 25,000 people live in Mo'ili'ili, and renters occupy about 64 percent of the community's 14,000 homes and apartments, according to 2000 Census figures. Still, she said, many are optimistic about change and waiting for landowners in the community to share their thoughts on the future.
"We're waiting for the players to come forward," she said.
Kagimoto said what's good about Mo'ili'ili — unique architecture, small businesses — needs to be preserved. "We don't want to have a Starbucks on every corner, and this kind of generic college town," he said. But he also said Kamehameha Schools appears receptive to those concerns. The look of the buildings to be renovated, for example, has gotten rave reviews from residents who say they capture the feel of Mo'ili'ili by using facades and thinking small.
Even as they see more growth coming in, some question how much the community can sustain. Ron Lockwood, chairman of the McCully/Mo'ili'ili Neighborhood Board, said the community needs better infrastructure before it can handle more residents or businesses. There are no immediate plans to replace the sewer system in Mo'ili'ili, however.
Lockwood said Kamehameha Schools has had a good track record of working with residents.
And he said the anticipation of the master plan is growing.
"I wish I knew what they were thinking," he added, chuckling.
Reach Mary Vorsino at email@example.com.