The surge of new construction projects in Kakaako over the past year made the development in the urban district a highly debated issue in the Hawaii Legislature this year.

But with just a month left in the 2014 session, it’s still unclear what kinds of changes the Legislature will impose on the state agency that manages development in the neighborhood and whether or not lawmakers will allow new condos on the area known as Kakaako Makai.

Here’s an update on the status of the different bills still afloat.

Improving the Hawaii Community Development Authority

House Majority Leader Scott Saiki introduced a slew of bills to rein in the Hawaii Community Development Authority back in January, but of those, House Bill 1866 is the only measure still alive.

HB 1866 is an omnibus bill that would cap building heights at 418 feet, require more public notice for new projects and change various other aspects of the agency’s rules.

Lawmakers say that the bill is still a work-in-progress. The latest draft is significantly watered down compared with earlier proposals to abolish the HCDA or stop new developments for a year.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee is planning to vote on the bill on Wednesday.

HCDA Executive Director Anthony Ching said he’s concerned about several aspects of the bill, including the cap on building heights and a provision to allow developers to buy their way out of a requirement to supply more affordable housing. He’s also not sure how the agency would enforce a provision to ensure that for-sale units are kept at a moderate price beyond their first sale.

Despite the political clamor surrounding Kakaako, the agency is still moving ahead on its mission to revitalize the district. HCDA held a hearing earlier on March 19 to consider an application to create a new residential and commercial complex on land owned by Kamehameha Schools. The agency also rejected a petition by residents of One Waterfront Towers contesting the approval of a project known as The Collection.

In response to criticism that the agency isn’t listening enough to the public, the HCDA changed its format for public hearings to make them quasi-legal and more explicitly encourage residents to dispute applications as “intervenors”.

Ching said that despite potential legislative changes to the HCDA’s rules, he’s confident developers will continue to value space in Kakaako.

“As long as there’s consistency and certainty in the process I think they’ll always figure out the way forward,” he said.

But even though it looks like there’s little chance of slowing down the fast pace of new buildings in the district, some residents haven’t yet given up hope.

A group of residents at Royal Capital Plaza in Kakaako filed a lawsuit Friday protesting the HCDA’s approval of a second tower at 801 South St. The attorney representing residents from One Waterfront Towers also said she’d take their case to court after HCDA rejected their petition.

Sharon Moriwaki is a resident of One Waterfront Towers and president of the community group Kakaako United that formed a few months ago in response to concerns about more high-rises.

The group has been derided by some for NIMBY-ism, but Moriwaki emphasized that she has real concerns about infrastructure problems in the district and the influx of thousands of new residents. Her view isn’t being blocked by any new buildings, but she smells the stench of sewer as she walks along the street. Honolulu officials still don’t know what’s causing the sewer smell that plagues passersby and outdoor businesses, but HCDA maintains that it’s caused by not enough poop flowing through the pipes.

Moriwaki isn’t convinced and thinks the agency is too eager to approve new projects before addressing infrastructure issues.

“If you want a walkable community why aren’t you doing the walkways first instead of putting the high rises up?” she said. “There’s nothing. It’s still a shabby place but it’s sprouting high rises.”

As the months have drawn on, Moriwaki said, it’s grown harder to get people to continue to take off work and testify at the Legislature or HCDA. Nobody showed up to oppose the Kamehameha Schools’ latest proposal at its first HCDA hearing, but Moriwaki was at the Legislature with other members of Kakaako United that day, waiting several hours to testify on bills and resolutions to curtail development.

She hasn’t given up hope about HB 1866 or Senate Bill 2699, a measure that would make the HCDA’s affordable housing policies more in line with Honolulu’s.

The House Finance Committee hasn’t scheduled a hearing for the bill and Saiki said he thinks the Legislature needs more time to evaluate the affordable housing issue rather than making sweeping changes this session.

Moriwaki isn’t waiting for lawmakers to listen. She has pulled papers to run for office and challenge incumbent Senate Majority Leader Brickwood Galuteria, who she feels hasn’t paid enough attention to the concerns of Kakaako residents.

But Moriwaki is still hopeful that both measures will move this session and help improve the HCDA before it approves many new buildings this year.

“It’s not over until it’s over,” she said.

Development on Kakaako Makai

Meanwhile, a bill that would allow the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to build condos on Kakaako Makai is still moving through the Legislature but it’s unclear whether it has the momentum to pass this year.

The state gave OHA the property in 2012 to help settle claims regarding land the U.S. took from the Hawaiian Kingdom more than a century ago. The settlement was valued at $200 million, but OHA says it won’t recoup the full value of the land unless it’s allowed to build condos there.

The Legislature banned residential development in the area in 2006 in response to concerns from residents and recreational users of the nearby beaches.

The House Committee on Finance is planning to vote on the measure, Senate Bill 3122, on Tuesday.

Saiki said that he thinks the proposal needs more deliberation.

“My impression is that at this point there’s no consensus on how to resolve this,” he said. “The Legislature needs to work with OHA and the governor to explore other options to provide some relief to OHA.”

Garret Kamamoto, spokesman for OHA, said that that the agency is optimistic about the bill passing. Supporters of the agency’s efforts say that the issue is about land rights and that if the bill doesn’t succeed, it would be another example of injustice for Native Hawaiians.

But several hearings about the bill have revealed significant concerns by policymakers and residents in the district.

Residents testifying at a recent Senate hearing shared their frustration at the long fight against building more high-rises in the area.

Ron Iwami from the organization Friends of Kewalos described the efforts of himself and others who use the waterfront property in Kakaako to prevent further development.

“Nine years have passed since the law [banning residential devleopment] was enacted and the people are still fighting to protect this land,” he said.

Several lawmakers who voted against development at the time are reticent or unwilling to permit it again.

Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland suggested the state explore a land exchange to protect the waterfront area. Sen. Sam Slom also opposed the idea.

“I am pro-development,” said Slom, the Senate’s only Republican. “However, the Legislature has to keep its word and its commitment.”

Galuteria, a Native Hawaiian lawmaker and Senate Majority Leader who introduced SB 3122, said he didn’t want to speculate whether or not the bill will be successful this session.

“I want to see the Hawaiians be able to get maximum yield for their properties,” he said. “If anyone is going to develop on those lands, I would want it to be people who are good stewards.”

Contact Anita Hofschneider via email at anita@civilbeat.com or on Twitter at @ahofschneider

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