Maybe you’ve noticed it: the hugely scaled, curved wall of the new Ritz-Carlton Residences building nearing completion at 2121 Kuhio Ave., at the corner of Kalaimoku Street in Waikiki.

Measuring roughly 210 feet wide and 350 feet tall, the slab dominates the neighborhood. Its makai facade, nearly 50 percent bigger than a football field, is scored with continuous horizontal ribbons of glass-railed lanai, whose permanent southwest views include the greensward of Fort DeRussy, the blue ocean and winter sunsets.

“Nothing else compares,” burbles the Ritz-Carlton website, which offers studio apartments for $900,000 and three bedrooms for $6 million. The condo-hotel is already sold out, according to the site. Reportedly, a preponderance of buyers are from Japan, with the rest from Asia and the U.S. mainland.

Meanwhile, behind the tower, the little, one-block stretch of Launiu Street between Kuhio and Ala Wai Boulevard has the tragic misfortune of dead-ending into the Ritz-Carlton’s brutally utilitarian mauka facade. Visually, all along the block, there is no longer a makai sky, just the Ritz-Carlton’s elevator shafts and fire escapes; during winter afternoons, Launiu Street is rendered cold and sunless in the behemoth’s long — and wide — shadow.

On the left, a photographic rendering shows the supposed view of the Ritz-Carlton tower from Launiu Street, as published in the Final Environmental Assessment for the project. On the right, the actual view of the Ritz-Carlton tower as seen from Launiu Street.

On the left, a photographic rendering shows the supposed view of the Ritz-Carlton tower from Launiu Street, as published in the Final Environmental Assessment for the project. On the right, the actual view of the Ritz-Carlton tower as seen from Launiu Street.

Left: Ritz-Carlton FEA; Right: Mark Harpenau

How did this happen?

The city’s Waikiki Special District design guidelines that govern Waikiki development were first codified in 1976. The guidelines sensibly mandate that “the long axis of all new high-rise structures should be oriented in a mauka-makai direction to minimize obstruction of mauka views and maximize natural ventilation. For similar reasons, building forms which produce narrow towers are preferred.”

The story of the Ritz-Carlton development is so typical, and so impactful on the health and wellness of Waikiki, that it deserves to be told at one sitting so its meaning can be grasped — and so that, perhaps, a similarly permanent blot on Waikiki can be avoided in the future.

During the proposed project’s first public presentation, made to the Waikiki Neighborhood Board in May 2012, the LA-based developer of the Ritz-Carlton, Jason Grosfeld, began his remarks by noting that he also developed the Watermark condominium and the Trump Beach Walk tower, both in Waikiki.

The story of the Ritz-Carlton development is so typical, and so impactful on the health and wellness of Waikiki, that it deserves to be told at one sitting so its meaning can be grasped — and so that, perhaps, a similarly permanent blot on Waikiki can be avoided in the future.

“We like working with the community,” Grosfeld told board members and the audience. “We like working with the neighborhood boards. We listen and try to be really respectful of the wonderful place Waikiki is. That’s the reason we come here and why we like to develop here. It’s a wonderful opportunity.”

Keith Kurahashi, the Honolulu planning and zoning consultant for the project, got up and said that the Ritz-Carlton “is the only piece of property that’s going to be developed at this time.” (Within two years, the developer had approvals lined up for a second tower that’s now under construction on an adjacent lot.)

Kurahashi quickly sketched the project: a 34-story, 350-foot, 409,000 square-foot condo hotel. He noted that the project would require City Council approval of a height variance, and a Department of Planning and Permitting-issued permit pursuant to the WSD rules. If all went according to schedule, he said, construction would begin in mid-2013.

Which it did, after prompt city action on the two approvals — and with no significant changes to the original proposal.

Ritz-Carlton tower as seen from Ft. DeRussy.

The Ritz-Carlton tower, under construction, as seen from Ft. DeRussy.

Curt Sanburn

Alarmed by the what they saw at the presentation, a feisty group of Waikiki residents, most of them from the Four Paddle condominium directly mauka of the project, tried to make the case against the proposal.

In public testimony before the Council and the planning department, and in written responses to the project’s Draft Environmental Assessment, the citizens pleaded that the city and the developer follow WSD guidelines. They pointed out that a previously approved proposal for the vacant site, a project sunk by the 2007 recession, featured a slim tower in the middle of the 2121 Kuhio lot, with roomy landscaped yards on either side. They tried to call attention to a deceptive rendering of the tower that showed a significantly narrower building than plans indicated, when viewed from the perspective of a pedestrian on Launiu Street. That rendering was never corrected and is included in the Final Environmental Assessment for the project.

It was all for naught.

In January 2013, the City Council voted 7-2 to pass a resolution approving a 50-foot height increase for the Ritz-Carlton tower above the 300-foot limit, a limit proscribed for its sub-district by the WSD. Councilmembers Joey Manahan and Ron Menor were the two “no” votes.

Two months later, the city Department of Planning and Permitting issued a Major Special District permit for the project, which allowed the developer to ignore the conceptual mauka-makai guidelines of the WSD and proceed with his horizontal, Diamond Head-Ewa, wall-like configuration along Kuhio.

In its ruling statement, DPP duly noted that its own Design Advisory Committee had said the project “does not reflect the spirit of the WSD guidelines and lacks public benefit”; and that “there is greater public benefit achieved with a mauka-makai building orientation.”

Ritz-Carlton developer Jason Grosfeld and his associates gave Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and members of the City Council more than $100,000 in campaign contributions between 2011 and 2014.

In March 2014, Civil Beat reported that developer Grosfeld and his associates had given Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and members of the City Council more than $100,000 in campaign contributions since 2011. Caldwell got about $50,000, while Councilman Ikaika Anderson got at least $24,850 (since 2012). Council Chair Ernie Martin got $10,000. Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi got $5,300, and lastly, between June 2012 and August 2013, Grosfeld and two of his family members contributed $17,600 to then-Councilman Stanley Chang, whose District 4 includes Waikiki.

As it turned out, the Waikiki Neighborhood Board never voted on the Ritz-Carlton tower. Comments made during the developer’s first (and only) presentation to the board were largely negative, with people expressing concerns about the building’s orientation and its conflict with the WSD guidelines. The board’s veteran chairman, Bob Finley, asked the developer to do more community outreach and then come back to the board for further consideration and a vote.

“They never came back to us, so we didn’t have the opportunity to vote on the matter,” Board Vice Chairman Louis Erteschik remembered in a phone interview.

“If they had come back, I suspect they knew they’d get a negative vote from us. I guess they’d rather have no vote than a ‘no’ vote!” he said

“I guess they’d rather have no vote than a ‘no’ vote!” — Waikiki Neighborhood Board Vice Chairman Louis Erteschik.

Two years later, angry that Grosfeld had split the project into two different segments, the neighborhood board did vote a resounding “no” on Grosfeld’s second tower, again to no avail.

On March 12, 2014, in the midst of the brouhaha over Grosfeld’s largesse to city officials, the City Council unanimously approved a height variance for the developer’s second tower, at 2139 Kuhio, directly adjacent to the first tower. The second, narrower tower has been under construction since early 2015 and essentially will extend the massing and scale of the first tower all the way to Lewers Street along Kuhio.

It’s mind-boggling.

The story raises several questions: What are neighborhood boards for? What are the Waikiki Special District Design guidelines for? Will Launiu Street ever get its sky back, and are other Waikiki streets safe from the shadows?

And, lastly, in light of last September’s Hawaii Supreme Court decision unanimously slapping down the city’s profligate variance-granting in the Kyo-Ya beach tower case, in retrospect, would the city have swallowed whole the Ritz-Carlton project?

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