Discontent with Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s policies in the state redevelopment district of Kakaako may have contributed to his political demise in the Democratic primary last month.
Abercrombie accomplished what no other Hawaii governor had done since the district was carved out in 1976 — overseeing the addition at least another 4,500 housing units that will be built or permitted by the time he leaves office.
But many residents have criticized the governor’s influence on the state redevelopment agency in charge of Kakaako and questioned whether the area’s infrastructure is prepared for such growth. Meanwhile, rising condo prices — and the relative lack of low-income housing in Kakaako — lead some to fear that the area is becoming “a playground for the elites.”
Hawaii’s top three gubernatorial candidates have some similar goals for the area, but different takes on how to accomplish them.
Just how much difference a new governor would make depends on how many more buildings in Kakaako are permitted this year. One of the biggest landowners, Kamehameha Schools, has already received approval for 44 percent of its master plan, and the Hawaii Community Development Authority already has plans in the works for all of its developable land.
Still, the election could affect how — and whether — Kakaako development continues its frenetic pace. Here’s a look at what each of the candidates has planned.
Independent candidate Mufi Hannemann made headlines last month when he said he wants to return control of the district to the city.
This raised some eyebrows, given that Hannemann didn’t push for that change when he was mayor of Honolulu.
But Hannemann told Civil Beat he didn’t do so while he was mayor because the timing wasn’t right and that the state’s involvement was necessary to pay for infrastructure improvements.
“I think to ensure orderly planning, consistent planning, by professionals, it makes sense for Kakaako to be reverted back to the city,” said Hannemann, emphasizing that he believes in home rule. Kakaako is one of just three areas on Oahu where the state, not the city, controls planning and permitting.
The former mayor thinks that under the city’s new transit-oriented development plans (which include proposals for affordable housing requirements), more low-income housing would be built than is currently being built through the HCDA.
For example, the draft Ala Moana Transit-Oriented Development Plan proposes that 20 percent of new residential buildings include housing for people earning 80 percent of area median income or below ($76,650 for a family of four), whereas HCDA’s housing for targeted income groups helps people earning up to 140 percent of area median income ($120,820 for a family of four).
“I really believe with all the concerns, criticisms, complaints that have come forth, especially during the last few years… the perception is indeed reality that people do not want to have any place on Oahu where only rich foreign investors can afford to buy,” Hannemann said, adding that there should be disincentives for foreign buyers to purchase homes there.
He also opposes adding condos on the makai side of Kakaako. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs lobbied the Legislature unsuccessfully last session for the right to build residential high-rises there, which many Kakaako residents resisted. Hannemann said he would be open to hearing alternative proposals from OHA.
Sen. David Ige also doesn’t want condos on the makai side of Kakaako, but disagrees with Hannemann about returning its jurisdiction to the city.
“It’s a practical reality — something like that would then take years and years and years,” Ige said.
He said the key is for the HCDA to be willing to listen and respond to the concerns of residents.
As chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, Ige pushed through a bill to reform the agency earlier this year by requiring more public notice and revamping its board membership.
While he’s happy with that piece of legislation, Ige thinks the agency should be doing more to work with the city to address infrastructure concerns. Sometimes he goes running through Kakaako and Kewalo Basin and can smell the sewer stench, he said
The state also needs to address the need for schools in the area, he said.
“We need to seriously look at what would happen for elementary-aged students,” Ige said.
The Democrat believes the HCDA should be providing more low-cost housing, and would consider reviewing existing income qualifications for reserved housing in the district.
In June, his campaign calculated that less than 7 percent of the housing being built in Kakaako is affordable for people earning less than 100 percent of the area median income. Ige said that at least 20 percent of the housing built should be affordable.
He said that providing more affordable housing would help ensure the homes are sold to local people rather than foreign investors.
Duke Aiona, a Republican who served as lieutenant governor under former Gov. Linda Lingle, is on the same page as Ige about keeping Kakaako with the state.
“Why didn’t he make that request as a mayor?” Aiona asked of Hannemann. “It’s a political grab, that’s all it is.”
Like Ige, Aiona also said he supports the need for more affordable housing, and would consider redefining what qualifies as affordable there. But he noted that because the district has only been partially developed, that doesn’t provide a full picture of what housing will be available.
“Right now, the way it’s been developed, it would appear there is no balance,” Aiona said, referring to luxury and affordable housing. “But that district has not been fully developed so it’s a matter of time.”
He downplayed the amount of power that the governor has to shape the future of Kakaako, saying that the reforms passed this year and during Lingle’s term have watered down executive influence.
“Basically the governor has no input in Kakaako,” Aiona said. (Currently Abercrombie’s Cabinet members make up half of the HCDA Kakaako board; a new law will decrease that by half.)
Unlike Hannemann and Ige, Aiona would support adding condos on Kakaako Makai.
When Aiona was serving as lieutenant governor, the development company Alexander & Baldwin proposed adding condos on Kakaako Makai but the Legislature passed a law banning them in response to public outcry.
Aiona said he opposed OHA’s bill last session to receive special permission to build condos because he thinks that if the state allows residential development in the area, it shouldn’t be restricted to OHA.
He said it may be unfortunate that some foreign buyers are snapping up new homes in Kakaako, but said that’s part of the free market.
“You would want local people to be able to buy but if you can’t afford it, you can’t afford it,” he said. “I believe in the free market. I believe in its independence.”
“The market will balance itself out,” he added.