Taller buildings. Thousands of new residents. A pedestrian-friendly urban community.
Move over, Kakaako. Honolulu planners have big dreams for another neighborhood. They want to transform Ala Moana into a more vibrant, inviting cityscape complete with bike lanes, green spaces and denser development.
The city held a public meeting at Washington Middle School on Wednesday evening to present the draft Ala Moana Neighborhood Transit-Oriented Development Plan, which was published in July. More than 100 residents showed up to peruse maps and press officials for more details.
The plan is one of 21 new development proposals for neighborhoods surrounding stations on the city’s rail line, which is scheduled to be completed in 2019.
Because the line is currently slated to end at Ala Moana Shopping Center and is expected to spur development in the neighborhood, city planners are hoping to establish guidelines to help revitalize the community.
The plan calls for making Ala Moana a “special district,” like Waikiki or Haleiwa, which means it would have its own specific design guidelines. It would create an entirely new zoning designation that allows for denser, mixed-use development and a variety of building heights up to 400 feet.
Nate Cherry, an architect at RTKL Associates who has been working on the plan for the past year and a half, told attendees that the proposal would add 20 acres of open space, a sharp increase from the three acres of park there now.
The plan also proposes 15 additional miles of bike lanes, nearly quintupling the current amount, Cherry said.
“Really the issue is how do you strike a balance between affordability… and attracting enough development to make this happen.” — Nate Cherry, architect
About 70 percent of the new development is expected to be residential, which would amount to an addition of 5,600 new housing units to the area.
The plan gives incentives to developers seeking permission to build taller or more dense buildings to add community-friendly elements like more open spaces or outdoor dining.
Developers would also be required to set aside 20 percent of the units in each residential development for people earning less than 80 percent of the area median income.
Currently there are no affordability requirements for developers in Ala Moana, although those who apply for a zoning change must set aside 30 percent of the units for specific income groups, Cherry said.
“Really the issue is how do you strike a balance between affordability… and attracting enough development to make this happen,” Cherry said.
Drawing interest from private developers will be key to making the plan a reality because the city doesn’t own much land in the area.
Unlike Kakaako, a neighboring state redevelopment where there are just a few major landowners, Ala Moana has many property owners with much smaller parcels. Landowners would have to join together if they wanted to create larger developments.
There’s also the question of practical implementation, which involves giving incentives to developers to create benefits for the community. This would require the city to collaborate with developers and lobby the City Council to approve the agreements, Cherry noted.
“The city is going to really have to work in a new way in order to make this happen,” Cherry said, noting that Honolulu is unlike many other cities in that it doesn’t have a city redevelopment agency. “They’ll have to work in a much more entrepreneurial way than just a traditional governmental agency.”
For Rebecca Weatherford, a 34-year-old architect who lives in Kaneohe but works downtown, it’s exciting to see sketches and renderings showing revitalization along streets like Kapiolani Boulevard, where it’s more common to see a seedy strip club than an outdoor café.
“It’s going to impact the whole island,” Weatherford said of the plan.
But some other residents are skeptical.
Lela Novak, a Native Hawaiian elementary school teacher who has resided in the neighborhood of McCully for over 60 years, wonders whether there is enough space in public schools for the children of families who will fill thousands of new units.
She’s also worried about how taller buildings will transform the character of the neighborhood where she’s lived all her life.
“If we don’t put a stop to this, it will be another Kakaako, whether we like it or not,” she said.