A new look for Kaka'ako
By Andrew Gomes
Advertiser Staff Writer
Three years after the unraveling of an ambitious and controversial plan to redevelop public land on the Kaka'ako peninsula, a state agency has begun a new effort to improve the prime waterfront area.
The Hawai'i Community Development Authority recently approved spending $600,000 to create a master plan for 31.5 acres of state property largely surrounding Kewalo Basin.
The effort is the latest in a long string of costly attempts to transform former warehouses, base yards and industrial maritime operations into higher and better uses.
Anthony Ching, director of the agency charged with improving the area, said he's confident the new planning effort will be fruitful, in large part because a roughly 50-member community advisory council has produced a vision for the area that the master plan should support.
Also, no residential use of the land is permissible under state law amended by the Legislature in 2006, and the HCDA is prohibited from selling land.
The 31.5 acres represents most of the property pursued for development under a 2005 agency plan, which invited private developers to submit proposals that resulted in the selection of a bid by local firm Alexander & Baldwin Inc.
The A&B plan generated a firestorm of opposition from community members and lawmakers for its inclusion of three high-end condominium towers the company said was necessary to pay for public improvements like a hula amphitheater, farmers market and scenic pedestrian bridge.
A&B abandoned the plan in May 2006, and since then the HCDA has been considering its next move.
In January 2008, it appeared much of the land might be removed from HCDA ownership when Gov. Linda Lingle's administration agreed with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to settle claims over revenues from ceded lands in part by giving OHA 18.5 acres along the Kaka'ako waterfront. But the Legislature rejected the settlement last year and again this year.
Ching said his agency can't wait indefinitely to see if a deal is made with OHA for the property, so the decision was made to move ahead with planning efforts.
"That's our mission," he said.
Planning work will involve holding community workshops and surveys to identify opportunities and constraints for development. Based on the input, a consultant hired by HCDA will identify potential master plan components and produce conceptual design features.
The agency estimates this work will take nine months to complete and cost $600,000. Agency board directors approved spending the money, which is subject to release by Lingle.
A future planning phase for the consultant to develop schematic designs and an economic sustainability analysis is projected to take another three months and cost $366,000, bringing the total planning cost to just under $1 million.
A comment from Lingle, who advocated for the A&B plan, could not be obtained for this story as to whether she supports the planning effort.
Playing a big role in the master plan is the Kaka'ako Makai Community Planning Advisory Council, a group established by order of the Legislature in the wake of the A&B plan failure.
The advisory council was created in late 2007 and in January produced a five-page vision with guiding principles for development in the broader 200-acre peninsula between Kewalo and Honolulu harbors makai of Ala Moana.
The group's guiding principles for development include expanding the area's shoreline parks, preserving open view planes, providing a shoreline promenade and including cultural facilities such as museums and a community center.
A "limited number of small local businesses" such as restaurants, cafes and small shops are also part of the group's vision to complement public facilities.
Amy Anderson, a University of Hawai'i associate professor of architecture and a co-vice chair on the Kaka'ako makai council, said there is great hope that the council's work will lead to development embraced by residents.
"Any community planning process is not easy, but I think there really is a great chance for collaboration between HCDA and community players," she said. "I think there's great hope for something extraordinary to happen."
In the past, plans for Kaka'ako makai often emanated from visions of governors or HCDA urban planners. Typically, public participation wasn't paramount in planning, and in some cases the public was invited to comment after agency directors chose a preferred plan.
Much of the backlash against the A&B project was directed at the HCDA for not collecting public input on whether housing should be part of the plan until after the agency had asked developers to include housing in their proposals.
Some concern has been raised by Kaka'ako makai council members over how much weight its guiding principles will be given in producing a master plan.
Ching said the group serves an advisory role to the agency's board, but that the group's vision will be reflected in the master plan along with other public input.
Michelle Matson, council secretary, said the group's vision and guiding principles were crafted from a very diverse group and should be the foundation of any master plan. But she wonders to what extent the HCDA plan will reflect the group's work.
"Will anybody take what we've done seriously?" she said. "Hopefully (the HCDA) will listen."
Some elements of the plan are being dictated by the Legislature, such as a cultural marketplace on the former United Fishing Agency fish auction site adjacent to John Dominis restaurant. The Legislature this year appropriated $2.3 million for the project.
The Legislature also has set aside 15,000 square feet in the same rough area for the Kewalo Keiki Fishing Conservancy.
The master plan site also includes Kewalo Basin Park, which will remain a park and is slated to share in $3.5 million in repairs and improvements planned for three parks under HCDA control.
One area not included in the master plan is about eight acres between the diamondhead edge of Kaka'ako Waterfront Park and Point Panic already designated by HCDA for public use that could be a park extension or possibly an amphitheater.
Looming over the whole planning process are a couple of big uncertainties as to whether the area gets redeveloped even if a plan is produced.
One is a possibility that OHA is given the property as part of a future settlement.
OHA expects to be back at the Legislature next year lobbying for approval of the settlement, and has shared conceptual plans of its own for developing the site with a low-rise, open-air commercial village.
"We understand that the Hawai'i Community Development Authority believes it needs to proceed with the master plan at this time, but because we have spent a considerable amount of time and effort in getting an agreement in place and approved, we hope that the Kaka'ako makai parcel will remain on the table," said OHA Administrator Clyde Namu'o.
The other uncertainty surrounds funding. The master plan will assess possibilities to finance development, which could be taxpayer money, revenue generated by commercial uses, or a combination. In past plans, the agency has recruited developers to build and own projects under a land lease.
Ching, at a March agency meeting, said the agency will look for appropriate economic returns so the public won't have to pay for the improvements and continued maintenance, which for the existing Kaka'ako Waterfront Park alone is about $750,000 a year. Potentially expensive cleaning of some sites also may make redevelopment costly.
Testifying to the uncertainties of master planning efforts are numerous failed plans and development guidelines for an area that has been one of Honolulu's most fertile fields of dreams.
The Kaka'ako peninsula was established more than 100 years ago by filling in a shallow reef that over the decades was built up as a landfill for garbage, coral and ash from a rubbish incinerator.
In 1976, a year before the seaside dump was closed, the Legislature created the HCDA as an extraordinary tool to help reverse urban decay in Kaka'ako between Ala Moana and Pi'ikoi, Punchbowl and King streets.
But it wasn't until 1982 that the agency was assigned control of part of the peninsula. The whole peninsula came under the agency's jurisdiction in 1987.
The first development strategy adopted by HCDA for the peninsula was in 1983, and envisioned a mixed-use neighborhood with commercial businesses, light industrial uses and 1,547 affordable housing units.
In 1990, the agency dramatically revised its Kaka'ako makai plan by adopting a 1989 Honolulu waterfront master plan by the Office of State Planning that dictated recreation and commercial uses for the area.
The Honolulu waterfront plan was an initiative of Gov. John Waihee, and included a 30-acre waterfront park, sandy beach, inland waterway system, office buildings, retail shops, restaurants, an aquarium, amphitheater, performing arts center, museum, marine research center, enlarged harbor and cruise ship terminals at piers 1 and 2.
A FEW SUCCESSES
A few pieces of that plan were realized. Kaka'ako Waterfront Park was built for $22 million atop a mound of garbage and incinerator ash in 1992, and a children's museum moved into an old incinerator building in 1998. A cruise ship terminal at Pier 2 was completed in 2006 for $26.5 million.
But other pieces faltered for various reasons. Inland waterways were deemed not feasible. The market for new office buildings went into a cold freeze. And building a beach at the peninsula's 'ewa end was blocked by surfers trying to protect a surf break.
HCDA produced a new development strategy in 1993 calling for 1,500 units of middle-income housing mixed with private commercial development. But that proposed plan was nixed in late 1994 when Ben Cayetano succeeded Waihee as governor.
Cayetano advocated for a high-tech park, University of Hawai'i medical school, world-class aquarium and Bishop Museum science and technology center on the peninsula.
The agency also supported commercial development along the diamondhead side of the peninsula, and in 1998 solicited private plans to develop 18 acres.
That effort attracted proposals including a high-tech park, an indoor snowboarding center and a waterpark, but agency directors selected a bid by local businessman and former politician D.G. "Andy" Anderson to develop a $138 million complex of retail shops and restaurants surrounding a miniature golf course, carousel and 130-foot high Ferris wheel. Later, the agency canceled the plan by Anderson, who owns John Dominis, on grounds that it contained unrealistic financial assumptions.
Under Lingle, HCDA engaged a new round of Kaka'ako makai planning that produced a business plan in 2002 that called for white-collar housing in a mixed-use neighborhood.
Meanwhile, a piece of Cayetano's vision — the medical school — broke ground, and HCDA negotiated with a company to build a $200 million aquarium and marine research complex on a 10-acre site at Point Panic. The medical school was completed in 2005, but the aquarium deal fell apart.
The A&B project tentatively approved in 2005 was a response to a request for proposals based on the 2002 HCDA plan.
Out of the five major planning efforts since 1983, only a few completed projects have resulted — the medical school, Children's Discovery Center, waterfront park and a makai park extension added in 1998.
A UH Cancer Research Center could break ground next year if a deal is reached for a private developer to finance and build the facility. OHA also has plans to build a headquarters and cultural center on a state parcel fronting Honolulu Harbor.
Ron Iwami, a Honolulu Fire Department captain who formed the grassroots Friends of Kewalo Basin Park Association in 2005 to rally against the A&B plan, believes the present planning effort represents the voice of the people and will produce a better result in terms of what the public wants for the area.
But Iwami, who is a Kaka'ako makai council vice chair, also fears that pressure to develop the area with housing or other projects promising big financial returns could threaten the community-based vision if planning and development stalls.
"I hope we can get something built there, and then it'll be settled once and for all," he said.