Right now, Kakaako development feels like a runaway train. Each week there are more permit approvals, cranes, and construction sites with little sense and a lot of fear about how it is all going to turn out.

If that continues and Kakaako turns out badly, it will be for a lot of reasons. One of the most important and least understood is the limited imagination people in Hawaii have about urban life.

In their heads, they  realize that Honolulu is a city, but in their hearts and imagination, Honolulu is anything but urban. Because of this restricted imagination, alternative and less developer-driven visions for Kaka’ako don’t emerge.

LeadCrop Building cranes in Kakaako on March 17, 2014.

Kakaako’s skyward expansion is taking on a feeling of inevitability — just what the developers want.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

There are more obvious reasons why things are moving so quickly in that area bounded by Ward Avenue, Piikoi, King, and the ocean. They involve money and power.

One is that after what Honolulu Magazine describes as 30 years of “flawed ideas” and “false starts,” once the post-recession capital was available big-money developers could go all out.

Another is that Hawaii law made this easy by creating a governmental agency (the Hawaii Community Development Authority) that by design was to make it as simple as possible for the developers to get their plans adopted.

That combination, public/private cooperation on steroids, was made even more powerful because for the most part, our state legislators buried their heads in the sand during those three decades when not much was happening in Kakaako.

Finally, a couple of sessions ago, in response to some community pressure, the Legislature passed a very limited bill attempting to slow the momentum to a more reasonable pace. Quite possibly, too little too late.

But it’s not all about money and politics. The developer-HCDA vision of Kakaako is also so powerful because it fills a huge vacuum. There are no competing, popularly shared alternative visions. Plenty of people in Honolulu have ideas about what Kakaako should not look like, but there is no compelling, shared vision.

The developer-HCDA vision of Kakaako is also so powerful because it fills a huge vacuum. There are no competing, popularly shared alternative visions.

Our popular imagination about Hawaii emphasizes natural beauty, especially the mountains and the sea. That is what we are thinking about when we say Hawaii is special. Waikiki? Well, maybe it’s special but not in that same good way. Downtown? Pearl City? The buildings along Kapiolani Boulevard? Forget about it. Not on the emotional radar.

Our imagination also stresses preservation: “Keep the country country”; “Save Our Surf.” As important as preservation is, for most of Kakaako it is not a useful guiding principle. “Keep Kakaako Kakaako?” “Save Ward Avenue?”

Imagine that you are on the top floor of a downtown Honolulu high rise with a 360-degree view. When you look out of that window to gaze at the views that are most compelling, your eyes move toward the mountains and the ocean.

The rest — the office buildings, those walk-up apartments lining Piikoi, the H-1, as well as Kakaako itself— are impediments. You look past them if you even notice them at all.

People focus on the mountains and the sea because that’s where so many of their meaningful memories and experiences are, the things that in their eyes make Hawaii a special place. That’s the popular cultural imagination of the Good Honolulu.

The problem is that this popular vision has little to say about places that don’t involve the mountains or the ocean. Like Kakaako. Most of Kakaako (but not all of it. I’ll get to the exception that proves the rule in a second) is that sort of empty space that does not stimulate the imagination.

Our popular imagination about desirable urban space is limited because people here have never had a chance to experience it. Until the late 1960s there were almost no residential high rises on Oahu. And then all of a sudden — in less than 10 years — there was a vast number of high rises from Pearl City to Waikiki to Hawaii Kai.

These structures gave many people an affordable place to live, but that’s it. This was high-density living that lacked almost every charm, convenience, and amenity that a desirable urban setting could offer. People were happy they could own or rent these ugly, massive, utilitarian structures. They got used to living in them, even liked them, but high-rise living has never become part of the popular image of what Hawaii should be.

For most, it was where you lived because you could not live where you wanted — your solution rather than your dream.

“I can’t imagine what life would be without the ocean.” Ron Iwami, the person who wrote these words, is not talking about the North Shore or Sandy Beach. He is actually referring to a portion of Kakaako that’s called Kakaako Makai, the area ocean-side of Ala Moana Boulevard.

People need to experience vicariously what they have not experienced first hand. Use other examples to help you think about Honolulu as a city.

Iwami is a firefighter turned Kakaako activist turned author who led the Save Our Kakaako coalition’s successful campaign to thwart residential high-rise development of the ocean side Kakaako land. (See his recently published, first-person account, “Save Our Kakaako: A Story of the Power of the People.”)

As a result of that struggle, the Legislature stopped the proposed Makai project and HCDA set up an advisory Kakaako Makai planning group that included Save Our Kakaako members.

This really was a story of the power of the people because the activists both defined the terms of the struggle and won on those terms.

But Kakaako Makai was an exception. Iwami’s organization was so successful because the struggle fit so well into the mountains/ocean/natural beauty imagery. High-density living was the villain, not the model. Urban life? Not an issue here.

More than anything else, Kakaako Makai was about preserving surfing spots. Iwami’s book is filled with stories of surfers sharing their memories. When he gave written testimony to the Legislature, Iwami wrote “forty years of surfing Kewalos” below his name.

As successful as it was, Safe Our Kakaako’s appeal to preservation and natural beauty is not a relevant way to think about the rest of Kakaako.

Is it still possible for the public to have more influence in Kakaako’s future? There are at least three reasons to be pessimistic. One is that the development plans are already so far along. They have a strong air of inevitability about them, which of course is exactly what the developers want.

Another is that the reforms that the Legislature passed are so limited. With the exception of height limitation, all the reforms are procedural. They create more opportunities more opportunities for public participation and change the composition of the HCDA board. That encourages piecemeal resistance but little else.

The third reason for pessimism is that the prevailing beliefs about what makes Hawaii a special place to live are hard to change because they are so tied up with how people here like to think about Hawaii.

In the short run, people need to experience vicariously what they have not experienced first hand. Use other examples to help you think about Honolulu as a city.

The best way to do this is to become aware of successful high-density development in other cities like Portland’s Pearl District. Instead of dismissing high-density developments as if they are all alike, consider what needs to happen to make urban developments good places to live.

Then maybe people here will quit simply talking in the abstract about “concrete jungles” and “Manhattanization” and instead come forward with better ways of making Kakaako — Oahu’s last shot at decent urban living — more appealing and more humane.

So that someday, our imagery of Hawaii as a special place will include urban life.

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