The Honolulu City Council on Wednesday paved the way for one of Oahu’s largest development projects with the unanimous approval of Koa Ridge, a 576-acre community off of H-2 freeway near Mililani.
The project would add 3,500 homes to the rural area, and promises to provide a thousand construction jobs as well as 1,600 more jobs at a planned hospital and other businesses.
The project’s developer Castle & Cooke has worked for more than a decade to get the plan approved and markets the proposal as an example of sustainable development and “smart growth.”
But critics say building a suburban community in the middle of Hawaii’s most populous island is an anachronistic approach to development in a city that has pledged to concentrate new projects along a planned rail line that’s further south.
“Oahu has reached kind of a tipping point in terms of our development,” said Anthony Aalto, head of the Oahu chapter of the Sierra Club. The organization is spearheading a lawsuit contesting the state Land Use Commission’s decision to allow the project to proceed.
“We now have the most congested freeways in the nation,” he said. “We have already paved over 50 percent of our best farmland. We cannot continue developing as we have until now.”
Aalto told council members that the Koa Ridge project undermines the city’s $5.2 billion investment in a new Honolulu rail system and would exacerbate traffic by adding another 7,000 cars to Honolulu’s already crowded highways. The Koa Ridge community would sit between two and three miles away from the nearest rail station, depending on how you measure it.
Bruce Barrett, executive vice president of Castle & Cooke, said the project is in line with the city’s commitment to transit-oriented development.
“Part of what we’re trying to do is make the community transit-ready,” Barrett said. “We’ll work with the Department of Transportation Services in terms of a bus connection feeder to (the nearest rail station) to make it really convenient and the next best thing to being on the rail line.”
The company is also subsidizing bus passes for future residents and spending $100 million to improve the streets leading up to the highway.
In addition to concerns about worsening traffic, opponents of the project say that the development will destroy some of the best agricultural land in the state. More than 85 percent of food in Hawaii is imported and the state has promised to protect agricultural lands and improve food security.
But proponents say the trade-off is worth it. It’s not just about jobs — Koa Ridge will boost Honolulu’s housing supply and ease the upward pressure on the city’s ever-rising housing costs. Honolulu has the third most expensive housing market in the nation, adding urgency to the need to provide housing.
Wednesday’s City Council meeting drew dozens of people testifying both for and against the project. Construction workers and union representatives came out in strong support of the development, while environmental and agricultural groups opposed it. Residents of central Oahu testified on both sides of the issue.
The Koa Ridge project is included in the city’s planning document, the Central Oahu Sustainable Communities Plan, but that was approved in 2002, six years before residents voted on the rail line. The city’s Department of Planning and Permitting is in the process of reviewing the plan, along with the Oahu General Plan, but doesn’t intend to send them to the City Council until next year.
Despite several city council members saying that they worry about the project’s impact on farmland and have doubts about whether enough homes will be affordable, the bill passed the council unanimously.
Koa Ridge is expected to break ground in 2015 with homes available for sale by 2016.