The Hawaii Community Development Authority has been downright timid about asking Kakaako developers to dedicate land or money for public parks in return for their permits to build high-rise towers.
In addition, HCDA, the state agency in charge of reviewing all developments for Kakaako, has given landowners great leeway when it comes to its requirements for open space around the more than 30 high rises the landowners are planning for the area.
The HCDA’s 2005 Kakaako master plan states, “the amount of opened space and recreational area (HCDA should mandate the developer to provide) should not be so extensive as to unduly restrict the capacity of a development to generate reasonable returns.”
In the updated 2011 master plan, the HCDA is even more flexible when it comes to requiring mandated open space for public use.
The updated master plan requires that 15 percent of any Kakaako Mauka construction project be reserved for open space. But the rules allow developers to count as open space, lobbies and pool decks inside of their buildings. This is private indoor space only available to condominium residents and their guests, not the public.
Lindsey Doi, compliance assurance and community outreach officer for the HCDA says, “that means a private rec deck on the 10th floor of a building would count as open space, as would any grassy areas in front of the building.”
HCDA’s logic, as explained by Doi, is that private pool decks and interior courtyards provide recreation space for building residents. She says in buildings with these indoor recreational areas, “those residents might not leave their condos to go to public parks, thereby leaving more room for other Kakaako residents who do choose to go to a park.”
Doi says developers of Kakaako projects who have been able to count space inside their buildings as open space include MJF Corp./Franco Mola, the developer of 803 Waimanu Street, and Downtown Capital/Marshall Hung, the developers of 801 South Street.
Architect Cara Kimura has lived for 15 years in a one-bedroom condo in Kakaako adjacent to where 801 South Street will be built.
Kimura says 801 South Street’s developers have been able to count 5-foot strips of grass by their driveway, and the building’s inside elevator lobby as open space.
Kimura says, “I don’t oppose development. I just want it to be done right. It is wrong to call strips of grass and an elevator lobby ‘open space’ when the public can’t use it for recreation. That doesn’t contribute to the community.”
To be clear here not all Kakaako landowners can get away with counting inside space as public open space.
Kamehameha Schools and Howard Hughes Corp. are held to a different set of rules because they started developing in Kakaako earlier and are vested in the HCDA’s 2005 master plan rules.
That means Kamehameha Schools and Howard Hughes are required to leave even less of their developed land in open space for public use: 10 percent instead of 15 percent. But that open space must be at grade — not up on the 38th floor of some condominium.
Erin Kinney, a development manager in Kamehameha Schools’ commercial real estate division says, “And yes, open space must be at ground level and unobstructed. Therefore, none of the open space can be located within a building and it must be accessible to the public.”
Kamehameha plans to build seven high-rise towers on 29 acres out of the 52 acres it owns in Kakaako.
KS, in 1992, dedicated a total 2.3 acres of its Kakaako holdings for public park space including parts of Mother Waldron Park and the Kakaako Gateway Park. The donation was part of a permit requirement.
Kirra Downing, a Kamehameha Schools marketing specialist, says, “We don’t have any plans to donate other land for park use.”
Kamehameha Schools’ Kinney says in Kakaako “we are redefining the concept of public open space.”
“Parks and open space are important aspects of the quality of life people consider when they are choosing where to live. In an urban neighborhood, the added attraction is about the activity and vibrancy of a place. We feel we are balancing these attributes well in Our Kakaako.”
In this context, “vibrancy of a place” means that Kamehameha plans to fulfill some of its public space requirements with open courtyards inside buildings and landscaped walkways between buildings, and open promenades in front of stores and restaurants. Also open green areas directly in front of its planned condo towers.
Kinney calls some of the features “activated streetscapes” and “enhanced streetscape experiences.”
The open space will be urban, not public park-like stretches of green grass where people can bring their coolers, beach chairs and set up hibachis to grill teriyaki chicken.
Elizabeth Hokada, vice president for endowment at Kamehameha Schools, at a recent meeting in Civil Beat’s newsroom, enthusiastically described what she called “a new kind of park, an indoor park.”
This is what Kamehameha Schools calls its “Kakaako Agora.” In ancient Greece, agoras were outdoor areas used by Greeks for markets and assemblies.
Kamehameha is partnering with the architects Atelier Bow Wow to create the Agora, a public meeting place, which is slated to open this summer for free use by the public for a gathering place inside a warehouse Kamehameha owns on Cooke Street. The builder is not counting the Agora as part of its open space requirement for its other building projects because it is a remodel of existing space.
Hokada says the parks in Kakaako “will not be the kinds of parks we knew as children.”
Howard Hughes Corporation plans to build 22 high-rise towers on 60 acres called Ward Village.
Rachel Ross, a director of the Bennet Group public relations firm, says the project will include about three acres of green open space fronting residential and commercial building across from Kewalo Basin. It is called the Village Green and will feature lush landscaping over land that is now paved.
In an email, Ross says, “It will be a large green, open space that connects the community and the Ward Village rail station to the ocean.”
Ross says in addition to the Village Green there will be courtyards and plazas for the community to enjoy throughout Ward Village. Ross did not specify in her emails, how much space Howard Hughes would leave open for the public to use besides the three-acre Village Green.
Again, it is important to remember this is not public parkland but privately owned green space between residential and commercial establishments.
Clearly, it would be overly idealistic to expect developers in Kakaako Mauka to freely give over sections of their property for passive public parks when the property is valued at $190 per square foot or $8.3 million an acre.
But it is up to the HCDA to be less meek and start to require the developers to deed property for public parks, and if that’s not possible, to require developers to pay into a Kakaako park endowment fund it could create to maintain and improve existing public grassy parks in Kakaako.
A real concern is the continuing effort by the HCDA to commercialize large sections of the Kakaako Waterfront Park.
HCDA still is actively exploring plans to lease out up to a third of Kakaako Waterfront Park to Tokyo’s Illuminage Group, which wants to transform 9.4 acres of public recreation land into a pay-to-enter light show.
HCDA also is considering giving up the entire four-acre Kakaako Makai Gateway Park for a volleyball academy.
A dedicated Kakaako Park Endowment Fund could remove the pressure HCDA says it is under to commercialize sections of Kakaako’s makai parks to raise money it says it needs for the $800,000 annual upkeep of the parks.
But HCDA says requiring developers to pitch into a separate park acquisition and maintenance endowment fund is problematic. HCDA Director Anthony Ching says, “there has to be a nexus between what developers are asked to pay and what they get out of it.”
HCDA spokeswoman Lindsey Doi says something more sustainable is needed because development is cyclical and once it stops or slows down, the money would stop coming into the fund.
HCDA currently charges every Kakaako developer a one-time public facilities dedication fee. For residential buildings it is 4 percent of the market value of the residential floor area of the project which can either be paid in cash or in equivalent land. For commercial buildings, it’s 3 percent.
“Of course, this isn’t enough to pay for all park maintenance, but it is something,” says Doi.
Critics wish for more. “Developers in Kakaako are getting a lot in terms of variances. They should be asked to contribute more open space to the public in exchange, not less open space as some of them are getting away with now. It’s absurd,” says Marti Townsend, executive director of The Outdoor Circle.
Located inside a 3,225-square-foot warehouse on Cooke Street, the project includes transforming the vacant space into a free, open to the public, community gathering spot with a mezzanine level that will add 687 square feet to the space.