Tycoon's Kahala 'Mission' a neighborhood eyesore
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By Andrew Gomes
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Andrew Gomes
Nearly a year since Japanese tycoon Genshiro Kawamoto gave three needy Hawaiian families free use of three of his multimillion-dollar Kahala Avenue homes, his tenants have adjusted to living in one of O'ahu's ritziest neighborhoods that couldn't be further from the homeless experience some of them once endured.
But the rest of Kawamoto's philanthropic "Kahala Avenue Mission" project — to fill five more of his nearly 20 empty homes on the street — have gone unfulfilled, while some of his properties have never looked worse.
Varying degrees of blight have developed on several Kawamoto properties since the billionaire announced his charitable plan in October 2006, including boarded-up or broken windows, graffiti, pools sprouting weeds and walls reduced to rubble.
Such conditions are unheard-of stains for Kahala Avenue real estate commonly adorned with impeccable landscaping and art-plated security gates, and have raised the ire of residents and passersby.
City Councilman Charles Djou said he gets "an earful" regularly from concerned and frustrated constituents in the neighborhood.
"A lot of the homes just sit there," he said. "It almost looks like an abandoned crack house."
The 75-year-old Kawamoto, who for decades has been a controversial figure in Hawai'i's real estate scene, previously described his latest effort as one he envisioned would transform the look of Kahala Avenue to a more "nostalgic Hawaiian street" populated with fewer "special people" and more Native Hawaiians.
Kawamoto did not respond to several written inquiries relayed to him through a local interpreter over the past few months, and he otherwise could not be reached to comment for this story.
The enigmatic real estate investor acquired his Kahala Avenue holdings between 2002 and 2006 for about $115 million, according to property records. His spree followed a sell-off of most of the roughly 160 O'ahu homes he had bought in the 1980s — a sell-off that triggered public concern over displacing such a large number of renters.
In October 2006, Kawamoto presented his plan to rent up to 10 of his Kahala homes to needy Hawaiian families for $150 to $200 a month. He also said he planned to turn other homes into public museums displaying his collection of Western and Oriental art.
As part of the rental plan, Kawamoto said swimming pools would be filled in and walls or fences surrounding homes would be torn down to make the homes safer for small children. He also expressed that too many barriers secluding Kahala Avenue homes ruin the area's sense of community.
Last March, after receiving more than 3,000 letters of interest from hopeful tenants, Kawamoto surprised three Hawaiian families with homes for free — and added $1,000 cash spending money to his gift, which attracted a national media spectacle.
In May, Kawamoto faxed a statement to the local press that identified five other homes he intended to have ready for more tenants hopefully by the end of June after he completed pool and wall work. "I will keep you updated as the project progresses," he said in the statement.
DIRT AND WEEDS
Today, no one is living in the five homes, and a survey of Kawamoto's other homes suggests that all are vacant.
Not all of the vacant homes exhibit visible decay. A few are in rather fine shape. But many, including some homes intended for needy families, are clearly suffering from neglect as evidenced by tall weeds and dead or untrimmed trees.
At 4432 Kahala, the four-bedroom house Kawamoto bought for $1.7 million has windows spray painted with graffiti. Another window is boarded up. The front-yard pool is filled with dirt and weeds.
The house at 4332 Kahala also was intended for a needy family, but sits empty in decent shape. Perimeter walls are gone, the backyard pool is neatly filled and four sets of bed mattresses are stacked in the foyer. But the home appears populated only by dead millipedes on the cold tile floor.
One of the eyesores residents complain about most is a home at 4585 Kahala where walls have been reduced to rubble and the oceanfront pool is filled with dark and stagnant water. Heavy construction equipment is parked about the estate, while vandals have left graphic anti-Kawamoto messages spray- painted on a perimeter wall that fronts a beach access path.
"He literally and figuratively has taken a sledgehammer to the neighborhood," Djou said. "He's not being a good neighbor to the community. It's not the people who he moved in, it is the condition of the homes."
In November, one concerned citizen at a neighborhood board meeting suggested that the Japanese Consulate be contacted to encourage Kawamoto to take better care of his homes.
A landscape worker who tends property along Kahala Avenue, but did not want to be identified for fear of jeopardizing his job, criticized Kawamoto for what he's done in the neighborhood. "No good," he said of Kawamoto. "He get money, but no take care the place."
Some observers believe Kawamoto is deliberately trying to irritate residents of the wealthy community by degrading much of his property and publicly encouraging his tenants to have barbecue parties on weekends by the beach.
Others have suggested Kawamoto is engineering a calculated scheme to depress property values so he can drive out other owners and buy up more homes on the tony street for a bargain.
Still others chalk up Kawamoto's recent actions to that of an eccentric mogul who has said "my focus in Hawai'i is not about making money. My real business is in Tokyo. Hawai'i is a place for me to release my creativity."
Dennis Bain doesn't know what to think. As a manager with landscaping firm Ultimate Innovations Inc., Bain said he occasionally sees Kawamoto tending to his Kahala properties — sometimes directing workers while under the shade of an umbrella, and other times taking a hands-on approach with garden sheers.
"It's crazy what he's doing over here," Bain said.
In front of the Kawamoto house at 4469 Kahala, the landscaping once matched its neighbor's. But since Kawamoto acquired the property, a drastic contrast has emerged among the arrangement of palm trees, spider lilies, mondo grass and gas tiki torches.
On Kawamoto's side, two of three palm trees are cut down, as are all the spider lilies, while the mondo grass is largely dead and a pair of torches is sawed off at midpost. A strip of regular grass still looks pristine because the neighbor took over mowing and watering.
As far as Kawamoto's charitable plan goes, some observers praise him for helping some — albeit only a few — underprivileged families.
Others view Kahala Avenue Mission as his latest wild publicity stunt that goes unrealized, like former plans to build an affordable housing high-rise in Kaka'ako and an affordable subdivision on Maui.
"He's not the great samaritan he claims to be," said Richard Turbin, a local attorney who is on the Wai'alae-Kahala Neighborhood Board and lives next to a vacant Kawamoto property. "My guess is he just lost interest after he got good publicity."
Turbin said he's not opposed to Kawamoto letting the disadvantaged live in and maintain his homes. He said he has met some of Kawamoto's tenants. "They seem to be very nice people," he said. "They seem to be nice responsible neighbors."
Among the families selected by Kawamoto is Dorie-Ann Kahale, a mother of five and a customer support representative for Pacific LightNet who not long before being selected by Kawamoto was living in the state's Kalaeloa transitional housing project and on a beach in Nanakuli prior to that.
Kahale said the gift has allowed her to save money that she hopes she can one day use as a down payment on a home. She also said the opportunity is allowing her to fly back and forth to California over the next year to take telecommunication courses that will help her to advance her career.
"I feel so fortunate," she said. "It's an awesome feeling just to be secure in a home."
Kahale said her neighbors are hospitable and that when she or her children have seen Kawamoto in the neighborhood he waves.
But she has not communicated with Kawamoto since he gave her the keys to the colonial style house with four bedrooms and 4 1/2 bathrooms.
Kahale said she'd like to seek landscaping equipment donations and offer to maintain the other homes Kawamoto intended to provide to tenants until he can.
Reach Andrew Gomes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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