Editor’s Note:Today we welcome veteran Hawaii newspaper and television journalist Denby Fawcett to our pages. Denby will be a regular weekly columnist for Civil Beat; watch for her commentaries on Tuesdays. Raised in Hawaii, Denby has spent most of her successful career here, most recently as the political reporter for KITV. She is also a co-author of “War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam” (Random House, 2002).
Honolulu residents will soon get a chance to own a piece of Genshiro Kawamoto. Alexander and Baldwin Inc. is planning to auction off all the naked women and lion statues it removed from Kawamoto’s Kahala Avenue properties.
In September, A&B bought 27 of Kawamoto’s Kahala properties and four of his holdings elsewhere in the state for $98 million.
A&B spokesperson Tran Chinery says A&B plans to donate the proceeds from the Kawamoto statue auction to Hawaii charities.
It is easy enough to hate Japanese billionaire Kawamoto for some particularly mean things he did here, which I will point out later. But as the wiry, 81-year-old languishes in a Tokyo luxury hotel awaiting prosecution on tax evasion charges, I think it’s time to praise him for a few of the good deeds he has done for Honolulu.
Personally, I was thrilled when Kawamoto tore down what have to be some of the ugliest houses in Hawaii, the huge Taco Bell-like mansions that sprung up on Kahala Avenue in the 1990s — hideous speculation houses constructed to appeal to foreign buyers.
And better yet, after he bought the architectural atrocities Kawamoto tore down the thick concrete walls surrounding them. For the first time, we could look out across Kawamoto’s empty lots and see the ocean. Never mind that Kawamoto’s neglectful ways turned many of the properties into rat-infested fields littered with trash.
Realtor Mami Takeda, who sometimes translates for Kawamoto, said Kawamoto told her he doesn’t like his properties surrounded by walls. He thinks the gardens should be open. Takeda said, “Mr. Kawamoto says it is the Hawaiian way.”
The open vistas Kawamoto created reminded me of the green and leafy Kahala were I grew up. Kahala was a community of beach houses then, not the snooty, walled community it became.
In the day, kamaainas lived in Nuuanu and only came down to Kahala on weekends or during the summer. What would later become the Waialae-Kahala subdivision was open land leased to farmers who raised pigs and vegetables. We kept our horses there.
My childhood residence was a two-story wooden beach house at 4523 Kahala Avenue, with expansive lawns and many tropical trees including a huge banyan tree we liked to ride our horses around. Instead of walls we had hedges. Kawamoto brought back some of that lush garden feel.
But before getting too gushy about Kawamoto, it’s time to change course for a moment. I can’t talk about Kawamoto without pointing out his clueless cruelty — unkindnesses I witnessed when I was a reporter for KITV-News — such as when, during the 2004 Christmas holiday season, he gave 27 of his Hawaii Kai renters 45 days to vacate their homes.
First the renters received notice of a 10 percent rent increase and then a few days later came the mass eviction. Kawamoto claimed he had to take advantage of soaring real estate prices to sell the properties. The uprooted renters had to pull their children out of neighborhood public schools where the kids were happy, and scramble to find houses elsewhere. A bitter pill after many renters had spent thousands of dollars of their own money to improve Kawamoto’s chronically run-down houses.
Or there was Christmas Eve 2003, when Kawamoto had workers remove a driveway on Hunaahi Street in Kahuluu, putting up “no trespassing” signs on the rocky path the workers left behind. The road destruction blocked two homeowners from access to their homes, including an 83-year-old woman who had to stumble over the rubble with her walker to get out to her car she was forced to park on the street.
Kawamoto, as it turned out, owned the land everyone had thought was public. He said he needed to clear a path to create a private entrance to a residence he was building on 130 acres he owned behind the two houses. The city ended up having to condemn Kawamoto’s road so the residents could get their cars back into their carports.
Now to go back to praising Kawamoto. Beachgoers came to appreciate the natty Tokyo man because his plants didn’t encroach on to the beach. He inadvertently widened the sandy spaces on the shore because he never watered his gardens. This contrasted with 12 of his Kahala neighbors who were cited by the state for expanding their properties by making their plants grow out past the high water mark. During high tide, the overgrowth forced people to walk in the water when going from one end of the beach to the other.
Finally, on the plus side, there is Kawamoto’s entertainment value. I loved my own little walking tour for my friends and out-of-town visitors to make fun of Kawamoto’s statues. The Kawamoto Statue Tour supplanted an earlier walk I had created called “the Ugly Architecture of Kahala Tour.” My Kawamoto statue foray improved as each month he ordered more and more nude women and black lion statues delivered to his property in wooden crates.
Even though A&B will auction off all the statues from the Kawamoto land it now owns, there are still plenty of statues to mock because Kawamoto has retained three of his most statue-filled properties: 4663, 4653-A and 4653-B Kahala Avenue.
But, sadly, it’s probably time to say goodbye to the unobstructed views out to Kahala Beach that Kawamoto’s lot leveling provided. According the real estate records, A&B has already sold four of Kawamoto’s lots and two more are in escrow.
Luxury homebuilder Bob Armstrong and his wife Kelly bought 4635 Kahala Avenue from A&B for $4,375,000. Diane and John Rowe purchased 4432 Kahala Avenue for $2.362,500. A third buyer, Australian billionaire Lindsay Edward Fox and his wife Paula bought two lots at 4845 and 4851 Kahala Avenue. Fox, who is listed in Forbes Magazine as the 14th richest man in Australia, already owns an adjacent Kahala beachfront parcel.
The new owners are certain to build big houses on the lots, blocking off the ocean views we have come to enjoy. All we can hope for is that the homeowners strive to fulfill Kawamoto’s legacy by preventing their shrubbery from encroaching onto the beach to give walkers plenty of sand to enjoy.
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Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.