When Cara Kimura first moved to Kakaako about 15 years ago, the neighborhood was like a ghost town.

Absent were today’s luxury high rises and high-end car dealerships. Instead, many buildings in the urban district tucked between bustling Ala Moana and downtown Honolulu were vacant, home only to squatters at night.

Over the next few years, the 45-year-old Kimura saw her neighborhood add a few luxury car shops and small cafes and restaurants. But recently Hawaii’s economy has improved, piquing developers’ interest in the area and sparking a burst of new projects.

Hawaii Community Development Authority, the agency in charge of planning and zoning in the area, envisions up to 30 new buildings in a vibrant urban village. In as few as 10 years, Kakaako is expected to have thousands of new residents and a much more cluttered skyline, a far cry from today’s graffiti-ridden district marked by warehouses and construction cranes.

Kimura, an architect, said that in general she supports development. But she’s worried about how fast projects are being approved and wonders whether HCDA is really listening to her and her neighbors’ concerns about infrastructure and affordability.

And she’s not alone. Kakaako residents have been protesting for weeks, picketing at intersections during rush hour and denouncing HCDA’s plans at public meetings hosted by neighborhood boards, the City Council, Honolulu’s mayor and HCDA. Hundreds of people have signed online petitions contesting specific projects, and several community organizations have sprung up to rally opposition, including Kakaako Cares, Kakaako Do It Right and Kakaako United.

Local media has been filled with commentaries arguing over the merits of development and even national media has taken notice.

Public officials are feeling the pressure, too. The City Council has spent weeks debating a resolution calling on the city to address sewer problems in Kakaako and state lawmakers are drafting legislation reevaluating the agency. On Monday, community members from more than a dozen organizations, including unions and environmental groups, sent a letter to Gov. Neil Abercrombie asking for a one-year moratorium on new projects until infrastructure concerns are addressed.

Compared with the City and County of Honolulu, HCDA has a different process for approving development that is designed to make it easier to achieve its mission of revitalizing Kakaako. But the agency’s strength is also its greatest source of criticism. Many community members say they feel shut out of the planning process, at the mercy of an appointed board and Abercrombie’s agenda.

The rising public outcry extending even outside of Kakaako has some state legislators asking: Is it time to get rid of HCDA?

A Perpetually Controversial Agency

The recent wave of opposition is nothing new for HCDA, which has been mired in controversy since its inception.

In some ways, what’s happening in Kakaako today is the ripple effect of a political struggle that took place more than 30 years ago.

In 1976, Kakaako was an industrial district under the city’s control. But the neighborhood got caught in a political feud between then-Mayor Frank Fasi and then-Gov. George Ariyoshi after Fasi challenged Ariyoshi for the governorship.

According to Abercrombie, who served in the Legislature at the time, Hawaii lawmakers founded HCDA in April 1976 as a way to prevent Fasi from developing Kakaako and using it as political leverage against Ariyoshi.

Even before the law took effect, critics of HCDA said the agency was an overreach of the state’s power. Opponents of the HCDA bill argued that the agency violated the principle of home rule, or a county’s right to govern itself, according to an April 21, 1976 story in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

A Honolulu Advertiser editorial the next day criticized the bill’s passage, saying: “If Kakaako redevelopment is a good idea that needs a push, it doesn’t follow the answer is a community development authority that covers all areas of Oahu.”

The bill initially would have given the state jurisdiction over development in Kakaako. But the version that passed was broader, opening up the possibility for the state to expand its control over the rest of Oahu.

Rather than going through the city’s more complex process of obtaining approval, developers who want to build in Kakaako can skip the state Land Use Commission and Honolulu City Council. HCDA staff reviews development proposals and the agency’s board, made up of the governor’s appointees, votes whether to approve them. The city evaluates whether or not there is enough infrastructure for projects, but zoning and planning are ultimately up to the state.

“The process is streamlined and efficient,” said HCDA spokeswoman Lindsey Doi.

Over the years, there have been numerous calls to get rid of the agency and protests against its plans for the area. As recently as 2005, Kakaako surfers and fisherman formed a group called the Save Our Kakaako Coalition to protest plans by Alexander & Baldwin to build residential towers on the waterfront known as Kakaako Makai. Community opposition was so heated that the Legislature passed a bill effectively killing the project.

In addition to Kakaako, today HCDA also has jurisdiction over land in Kalaeloa in west Oahu near Kapolei and Heeia in east Oahu near Kaneohe.

Promoting Faster, Taller Development in Honolulu

On Wednesday, HCDA is planning to decide whether to allow a highly debated 46-story tower at 801 South St. and its accompanying 10-story parking garage. If approved, the project would be the sixth to receive HCDA’s approval this year. That’s three times as many as HCDA passed last year.

Doi said the agency approved more projects this year because it received many more applications from developers in light of positive market conditions, including high demand for housing and low interest rates. In 2011 and 2010, HCDA approved just one project each year.

Tyler Dos Santos-Tam, head of the Hawaii Construction Alliance which represents thousands of workers in construction-related industries, said it is important that HCDA acts quickly to ensure the projects get built.

“If we tell developers to wait, we might miss this economic opportunity,” Santos-Tam said.

But that unsettles some Kakaako residents who are worried about ever-taller walls of concrete.

HCDA rules allow buildings up to 400 feet high. Kakaako’s proposed transit-oriented development plan would permit some towers to reach 700 feet, twice as high as the city’s building height limit.

The agency already approved four towers reaching as tall as 418 feet. Doi said that the old HCDA rules allowed buildings to add an additional 18 feet for mechanical elements.

HCDA is currently considering another proposal at 690 Pohukaina that may exceed the 400-foot height limit, she said.

In the rest of the city, building heights are capped at 350 feet. Curtis Lum, spokesman for the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting, said the 429-foot-tall First Hawaiian Bank building in downtown Honolulu is the only exception since the rule was established in 1986.

Too Much Power in Abercrombie’s Hands?

One of the biggest criticisms of HCDA is that it doesn’t allow for enough community input. But Abercrombie’s reluctance to fill vacancies on HCDA’s boards also fuels the perception that the agency is merely an arm of his administration. 1

The organization’s Kakaako board has been missing a cultural specialist and a community representative for months, despite calls from legislators and city council members for Abercrombie to fill the posts. The result is that HCDA’s decision-making boards are largely made up of Abercrombie’s cabinet members.

Keith DeMello, spokesman for Abercrombie, said Monday that the governor is planning to announce the appointment of one HCDA board member on Tuesday. DeMello said that Abercrombie is still in the process of reviewing applications for the additional vacancies.

The situation is ironic given that Abercrombie vocally opposed the agency for 30 years. He was the only lawmaker to vote against the bill when it was created. Even as recently as 2005 when he was representing Hawaii in Congress, Abercrombie said the state should abolish HCDA because it had failed in its mission.

Abercrombie “criticized the agency as being an organ of the governor, who selects most of the agency’s board members,” the Honolulu Advertiser reported on Nov. 15, 2005.

Abercrombie told Civil Beat that he opposed the HCDA legislation in 1976 because he saw it as a political ploy. He said he now supports the agency because it is finally fulfilling its mission of developing Kakaako.

“When I became Governor I had the opportunity to carry out the stated legislative intent of the HCDA in today’s context — ironically enough — with the provision of workforce housing at its core. So it goes,” he said in a statement.

Could HCDA Go the Way of the PLDC?

It has only been a few months since hundreds of people turned out at the state Capitol and community meetings to protest Hawaii’s Public Land Development Corporation, a state development agency that Legislature created in 2011 to allow private-public partnerships to streamline development of public land.

Public outcry against the organization’s exemptions from county zoning regulations led to its quick demise earlier this year, as thousands of community members demanded that it be abolished.

The legislation creating the PLDC was modeled after the law establishing HCDA. Now that the PLDC is gone, HCDA could be the Legislature’s next target.

House Majority Leader Scott Saiki, who represents Kakaako, said he is drafting legislation to reevaluate HCDA’s composition and powers.

“HCDA is going to have to justify their existence,” Saiki said. He said the organization has too much authority that needs to be diffused, which is what opponents said about the PLDC.

Senate Majority Leader Brickwood Galuteria, also from Kakaako, told Civil Beat that he’s not yet planning to introduce legislation regarding HCDA but he wants “to see how HCDA conducts itself over the next couple of decisions.”

In addition to the 801 South St. project, HCDA is scheduled to vote on a building proposal for 803 Waimanu St. about a week before the Legislature opens in January.

Galuteria said he doesn’t think the agency will be repealed but is concerned about the persistent vacancies on the agency’s board.

Saiki is more critical, contending that Abercrombie is breaking the law by not filling the seats. Even though HCDA has been around for decades, Saiki said the rash of projects this year has provided more than enough traction for the Legislature to take action.

“One of my concerns about the PLDC was that you had a small group of people appointed to the board who would be making decisions impacting public land throughout the state with very little public input and involvement,” Saiki said. “And that is exactly what is happening at HCDA. Seven members are making decisions that will impact the future of the entire urban core for decades.”

DISCUSSION QUESTION: Should HCDA be managing development in Kakaako or should the City and County of Honolulu be responsible for zoning and planning in the area?

  1. This story has been updated to clarify that while HCDA holds two official public hearings per project, the city determines the number of public hearings to hold per development application on a case-by-case basis.

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