Lawmakers have been raising red flags over a proposed high-rise housing project on Waimanu Street in Kakaako.

Five state legislators and two Honolulu City Council members detailed their concerns over government transparency and size restrictions in a June 5 letter to the Hawaii Community Development Association, the state agency considering whether to approve the permit.

The joint letter says: “This is the first project that proposes to construct a high-rise directly adjacent to an existing high-rise building.”

Honolulu has more high-rises than all but a few U.S. cities. More than 470 skyscrapers shape the city’s skyline, according to a list of Honolulu’s tallest buildings.

Given this urban reality, Civil Beat wanted to learn what exactly the lawmakers meant when they suggested that the Waimanu project would be the first to propose building one high-rise right next to another.

Rep. Scott Saiki, one of those who signed the letter, said they meant it’s the first in the Kakaako district. The other lawmakers who signed the letter are: Sen. Brickwood Galuteria, Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, Rep. Tom Brower, Rep. Della Au Belatti, Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga and Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi.

Saiki said the state has followed its setback rules for other developments in the area, but is considering granting the request for variances this time around because the project is supposed to provide 192 workforce housing units.

Known as the 803 Waimanu project, MJFDevelopment Corporation wants to build a 250-foot high-rise less than 40 feet from the lower Imperial Plaza tower and just under 90 feet from Imperial’s taller 400-foot high-rise.

Imperial Plaza residents say the proposed neighboring high-rise would harm their quality of life by wrecking their views, blocking their breezes and creating more traffic congestion.

The developer says the project will provide desperately needed affordable housing units for working-class residents and will be built in an environmentally friendly way.

HCDA said the lawmakers’ statement is only true if they mean the Waimanu project would be the first to propose building a high-rise directly adjacent to another under the state’s new Mauka Area Rules.

The rules, which were updated in 2011, require that if a tower is directly behind another tower, then the separation distance between the two in the mauka-makai direction must be 300 feet. The rules delineate different height and distance requirements for each of the seven Kakaako neighborhoods.

But if the lawmakers just meant in general, HCDA said, this would not be the first high-rise to be built next to another in the Kakaako area. There are several examples, including One Waterfront Tower, Nauru Tower and 801 South Street. The distance between the Nauru Tower and Hawaiki Tower, for instance, is roughly 200 feet, according to HCDA.

If the tower is offset so that it doesn’t fall within the sight line of the tower behind it, then the separation distance requirement is only 80 feet, Kakaako Planning Director Deepak Neupane said at the May HCDA meeting. He confirmed that the proposed Waimanu tower falls partially within the sight line of the Imperial tower.

Galuteria said the lawmakers’ letter is indeed referring to the first high-rise project under the new rules for the Kakaako area.

The lawmakers said in their letter that key public agencies should weigh in on whether the infrastructure is adequate to accommodate wide-scale development. They also want HCDA to disclose and explain its precise standards for review of variances and modifications, particularly with respect to height and density.

Galuteria said the lawmakers aren’t opposed to workforce housing, they just want the state to follow its own rules and set a good precedent for future development in the area.

HCDA is set to decide on the development permit July 3.

BOTTOM LINE: We find the lawmakers’ claim to be half true. When the statement is qualified to apply only to the Kakaako district under the new Mauka Area Rules, it is true that the Waimanu project is the first to propose building one high-rise so close to another. But without those qualifiers, which weren’t included in the letter, the statement is misleading because there are already high-rises in the area that were built quite close to each other.

You can view the lawmakers’ letter to HCDA here:

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