In December of 1977, the Hawaii Architect published an article entitled “Designing Honolulu for Mass Transit” in which Luciano Minerbi, now a professor at the University of Hawaii, argued that Honolulu should be designed as a pedestrian-oriented city where people don’t have to rely on cars.

Decades later, the concept of “transit-oriented development” is finally gaining traction in Honolulu as the city seeks to catalyze growth around rail. About 200 planners, developers, city officials, academics, students and other residents attended the city’s TOD symposium on Saturday at the Blaisdell Center to discuss what Honolulu has achieved so far and what is possible.

TOD Symposium

Anita Hofschneider/Civil Beat

In addition to local officials and developers, the event featured Meea Kang, president of Domus Development, who specializes in affordable housing and smart growth; William Fleissig, president of Communitas Development; and Guillermo Peñalosa, executive director of the Canadian non-profit 8-80 Cities.

All of them emphasized that Honolulu has a unique opportunity to become a leader in TOD but that there’s a lot more that needs to be done to be successful.

Fleissig, who previously worked as a planning director in Boulder and Denver, said Honolulu needs to articulate an equitable TOD strategy that expands affordable housing and includes new mechanisms for financing.

“They’re kind of hamstrung now,” Fleissig said, noting that tax-increment financing, a subsidy that relies upon future tax revenue, should be an option.

Kang also suggested enabling tax-increment financing to incentivize the development of very low-income homes, arguing that the current plan for designating a nominal percentage of development for affordable housing isn’t aggressive enough.

She described the challenges of creating low-income housing in California, including critical neighbors and mounds of red tape. When she sought to transform trailer homes into workforce housing in Kings Beach, California, she faced daunting regulatory processes and neighbors accused her of Manhattan-izing Lake Tahoe.

“Don’t be afraid if everyone tells you no: you can get out that machete and cut through the crap,” she said.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said that Kang’s speech resonated with him.

“Meea’s real focus on trying to fight through the different regulatory barriers gave me more passion to keep pushing,” Caldwell said.

But he said the city has limited money to provide for very low-income housing projects. Lawmakers have rejected proposals for tax-increment financing in the past, but Caldwell said he’s going to push for it again.

Caldwell also really liked the speech by Peñalosa, who said of building bike lanes, “Does anybody have to justify a bridge by the amount of people swimming across it?”

Peñalosa joked about the incongruity embedded in living in some cities: Driving to the gym to get on the treadmill, taking an escalator up to the gym to jump on a StairMaster.

He said after the event that seeing Honolulu for the first time, he thinks the city is good but it’s far from great. “People are more reluctant to change when things are good,” he noted. But he said he was impressed by the shared vision of the conference attendees.

George Atta, director of Planning and Permitting, said his biggest takeaway from the conference is that the city needs to move forward more ambitiously.

“I think we’ve been too cautious,” he said.

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