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Los Angeles developers seeking the city’s permission to exceed a Waikiki building-height limit and other concessions for their controversial Kuhio Avenue hotel-condominium project have given more than $100,000 to Mayor Kirk Caldwell and Honolulu City Council members’ political campaigns since 2011, campaign finance records show.
Caldwell and council members Ikaika Anderson and Stanley Chang have been the biggest beneficiaries of the Ritz-Carlton developers in the past three years as the project has worked its way through city approval processes, including a height limit exemption in January 2013, state and federal campaign finance records show.
Both Chang and Anderson are running for the 1st Congressional District seat being vacated by Colleen Hanabusa.
Caldwell, who was elected in 2012, has continued to be one of the state’s largest political fundraisers even though he’s not up for election again until 2016.
The development, which includes two 37- to 39-story towers connected by an eight-story building, has stoked opposition in Waikiki where residents have raised concerns that the project is being rammed through without proper vetting and discussions with the community.
The first tower at 2121 Kuhio Avenue is called the Ritz-Carlton Residences. A second tower is proposed for 2139 Kuhio Avenue.
The Waikiki Neighborhood Board voted 13-1 against the second tower that’s currently under review by the City Council and Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting. The first tower, which was granted an exemption from the height limit in January 2013, is under construction.
The towers are being developed by Los Angeles real estate firms, Pacrep LLC and Irongate Capital Partners, both managed by Jason Grosfeld.
The records show that Grosfeld, his family members and business partners have contributed at least $24,850 to Councilman Ikaika Anderson’s City Council and congressional campaigns since 2012.
Keith Kurahashi, a consultant for the first tower, donated $1,250 to Anderson’s City Council campaign in 2011.
Grosfeld and two of his family members also contributed $17,600 to Councilman Stanley Chang’s City Council and congressional campaigns between June 2012 and August 2013.
Caldwell has received about $50,000 from the Grosfelds, executives at Irongate Capital Partners, Kurahashi and the Honolulu firm, RM Towill, a consultant for the developer.
About half of that, or $24,000, was donated to Caldwell on May 13, 2013, records show. Jason and Jenna Grosfeld each gave $4,000. Jason Grosfeld’s parents contributed $4,000 each, as did Casey Federman and Gregory Brandes, executives at Irongate Capital Partners.
Councilman Ernie Martin has received $10,000 and Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi has received $5,300 from the developers and their business associates since 2011.
Council members Joey Manahan and Kymberly Pine each received $500 from Jason Grosfeld last year.
The donations don’t appear to violate campaign spending laws that limit how much an individual can contribute to a political campaign. Donations to the mayor and City Council members can’t exceed $4,000 in an election cycle. The limit for congressional candidates is $2,600 per election — primary and general — or $5,200 for the cycle.
Waikiki resident Mark Harpenau raised the issue of the hefty contributions at a City Council committee hearing last week where council members debated whether to grant the developer’s request to exceed the Waikiki Special Design District’s 300-foot building-height limit by 50 feet.
“As a matter of open disclosure, we believe the chair and Stanley Chang should share with the public and this committee the magnitude of contributions (they have) received from the developer,” Harpenau told council members.
Members of the Committee on Zoning and Planning didn’t press the issue.
“Members, any questions?” asked council member Breene Harimoto, before quickly calling the next person on the list of people who showed up to testify on the Kuhio Avenue luxury tower project.
Harpenau told Civil Beat that the donations raise questions about whether top government officials are being unduly influenced by the the project developers.
“I think there is a big question of ethics and I think it’s a pay to play,” said Harpenau, who lives in the nearby Four Paddle condominium complex and stands to lose his ocean view because of the towers.
Council members must sign off on the project’s height exemption, while the city planning and permitting department has discretion over building guidelines, including the angle of the towers, a key point of contention for surrounding residents.
Caldwell declined to comment for this story.
UPDATE: After this story was published, a Hawaii News Now reporter questioned Caldwell about the contributions. You can read about the mayor’s response here.
Council members Anderson and Chang, who received the largest sum of contributions on the City Council, both said that the money has not affected their reviews of the project.
“Campaign contributions don’t buy my influence,” Anderson told Civil Beat.
Anderson chairs the zoning and planning committee, which is currently reviewing the developer’s request for a height extension.
“I have not committed to anyone that I would try to pass this out,” he said. “I made it clear to the applicant that the onus is on them and their agent to convince the committee.”
Chang, who has expressed strong support for the project, also said that he hasn’t been swayed by the money.
“I think our office has been exemplary in going above and beyond when comparing the concerns of the public,” he said. “We want to avoid any perception of (conflict).”
In January 2013, in a 7-2 vote, the City Council approved Pacrep’s request to exceed the 300-foot height limit for its first tower at 2121 Kuhio Avenue. Council members Ron Menor and Kymberly Pine cast the dissenting votes.
Several months later, the developer made public its plans to build a second tower at 2139 Kuhio Ave., connected to the first. The high-rises would share restaurants and other amenities.
At last week’s hearing, some residents alleged that the developer had hidden its plans for a second tower in order to quell community resistance and more easily push the project through the City Council.
David Tanuoe, who until October 2012 was the city’s planning and permitting director, is now working for the developer as an executive at RM Towill. During the hearing, he denied that the developer had tried to keep its plans for the second tower secret.
“That’s not correct at all,” Tanoue told council members. “Any discussion or any opportunity to look into a second tower was later in the year.”
The proposal has angered some residents who complain that the buildings should be angled mauka to makai, in accordance with Waikiki building guidelines, in order to protect public view planes and not block tradewinds. The developer plans to build both towers parallel to the coastline, a design critics say creates a “wall” or “tombstone” effect.
Nearby residents also worry that the towers will bring too much density to the neighborhood and add to a shortage of parking.
But the project also has its supporters. The Waikiki Improvement Association voted overwhelmingly in favor of the development, citing the need to add more hotel rooms to the popular tourist district.
Last week’s hearing on the project lasted for about four hours. Art Challacombe, deputy director for the city’s planning and permitting department, testified in support of the project, the height exemption and aligning the towers in an Ewa-Diamond Head direction.
“We support the resolution,” said Challacombe. “We reviewed the applicant’s proposal and view plane analysis and methodology. We concur with the methodology.”
Ultimately, Anderson moved to defer a decision on the project until this week in order to address some of the community concerns with the developer. Another hearing is scheduled for Thursday.
Scheduling the hearing this week insures it can still be placed on the agenda of the full City Council this month for a final vote. The Council could have deferred the resolution indefinitely or put the matter out for a public hearing before debating it again in committee.
Anderson said his actions show he has not given special treatment to the developers.
Approval “depends on whether the developer can satisfy the Council as to the community safeguards,” he said. “The ball is in the developer’s court, it is not in my court.”