“Who are you building for?”

The question, one of many asked at Thursday’s Civil Cafe event at Civil Beat, summed up various concerns about Kamehameha Schools’ plans to develop its land in Kakaako.

The state’s largest private landowner has big plans to transform Kakaako from a warehouse district into a vibrant community, and has been working to gain support from a community that is suspicious of the outsized development projects taking place in Honolulu’s urban core.

Representatives from Kamehameha Schools talked about Kakaako development plans on Thursday at a “Civil Cafe,” an occasional discussion hosted by Civil Beat on topics of local relevance.

Kamehameha Schools, which is a charitable trust that also operates as an educational institution, uses 98 percent of returns from its $10 billion endowment to succeed in its mission to educate Native Hawaiians.

The trust owns 52 acres in Kakaako, a neighborhood that is expected to grow from 20,000 residents in 2010 to 30,000 residents in 2030.

The Hawaii Community Development Authority is slated to hold the first hearing Wednesday on Kamehameha Schools’ plans to build two large new condos. The development project will include a 423-unit high-rise called Keauhou Place and a 209-unit mid-rise named Keauhou Lane.

All in all, the trust plans to develop 29 acres of its land in the area, which would add more than 2,750 new dwellings. Five years ago, HCDA approved the trust’s master plan, which calls for building up to seven high-rises and other buildings across a nine-block area.

Kamehameha Schools refers to its plans as “Our Kakaako“, which it describes as “a community” and “a vision” for the area.

“We’re not talking about just building buildings, we’re talking about building a neighborhood,” said Elizabeth Hokada, vice president of endowment at Kamehameha Schools.

The landowner has already done a lot to make Kakaako into a lively creative neighborhood by hosting multiple events that attract and celebrate artists and small businesses.

Our Kakaako includes the Honolulu Night Market, a monthly event with retail, food and entertainment; Eat the Street, a monthly themed street food rally; Pow! Wow! Hawaii, an annual outdoor art festival; and even a monthly pop-up record store at Bevy Bar. Gawker has called the neighborhood the Williamsburg of Honolulu, referring to Brooklyn’s hipster haven.

“Our influence is really transcendent,” said Paul Quintiliani, senior director of Kamehameha Schools’ Commercial Real Estate Division. “When people talk about Kakaako as being the next urban neighborhood, a lot of that is from our activity.”

Both Hokada and Quintiliani emphasized that through Our Kakaako, Kamehameha Schools is trying to create a vibrant, walkable community with diverse people that’s a dynamic place to live and work.

But the trust’s development plans haven’t always unfolded smoothly. One proposal, known as The Collection, consists of high-rise and mid-rise buildings at 604 Ala Moana that have met fierce public resistance, inciting a community group called Kakaako United to file a petition with HCDA to contest the state’s decision to approve it.

And public concern about development in Kakaako grew vocal enough to convince the state House to pass a bill earlier this year to impose a height limit on buildings, give residents a better way to contest HCDA’s decisions and change the agency’s affordability requirements.

PF Bentley Civil Cafe Panoramic

Questions raised by Civil Cafe attendees showed that residents still have doubts about what kind of neighborhood Kakaako is becoming and whether gentrification might make it too expensive for them to stay.

Several of the questions reflected concerns about poor infrastructure and the cost of housing, issues that have been debated at length at Honolulu Hale and in the state Capitol as lawmakers wrestle with how to manage development in the area.

Hokada shied away from commenting on what the trust really thinks about HCDA’s rules on affordability.

“They are our regulators so we do need to be politic about what we say about them,” she said.

Quintiliani emphasized the trust’s plans to provide affordable rental housing for people earning as little as half of Honolulu’s area median income, which is $82,600 for a family of four. “By the time we’re done, we would have delivered over 200 units of rental projects,” he said.

But residents were concerned with more than just the types and cost of the condos being built. Some attendees, including students and alumni of Kamehameha Schools, questioned Hokada and Quintiliani about whether the trust’s development plans truly honor its mission to support and provide education for Native Hawaiians.

One man asked why Kamehameha Schools is providing housing for people at higher income levels when so many Native Hawaiian people are homeless. Another Hawaiian attendee said, “I don’t see how this development is representative of the fundamental mission of Kamehameha Schools.”

Hokada replied that the money earned from the development projects would provide for Native Hawaiian students. Kamehameha Schools gives need-based financial aid to two-thirds of its students. She said anti-discrimination laws prevent the trust from providing housing solely to Native Hawaiians.

The two-hour event also inspired questions about everything from what kind of parks there will be in open spaces in Kakaako to the types of trees that will be planted there.

Afterward, some attendees said they were dissatisfied with responses to questions about affordability and whether Kamehameha Schools is satisfactorily fulfilling its mission.

Hokada and Quintiliani emphasized that they welcome opportunities to clarify their plans. “We do believe that the community we’re building will benefit the broader community as well as the lahui,” Hokada said.

If you missed the livestream or the event, see the archived video below:

To check out the live-blog of the event, see below:


Contact Anita Hofschneider via email at anita@civilbeat.com or on Twitter at @ahofschneider

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