Carol Tokunaga has seen a lot of change. She moved to Kalihi nearly 60 years ago, back when Kamehameha Shopping Center was nothing but kiawe bushes and the water in Kapalama Canal was clear and teeming with fish.
On a Friday afternoon, she sits on the grass outside her home, weeding and talking matter-of-factly about the days when she had to walk all the way down to Liliha Street to grocery shop. She’s glad that Walgreens is now just across the street.
But with convenience came congestion. More people have moved into the neighborhood and the streets are so jammed that during rush hour, Tokunaga can’t pull out of her driveway.
More changes are in the works. City officials are considering a plan to revitalize Kalihi by rezoning land that surrounds three planned rail stations.
Tokunaga isn’t sure how much the proposal would affect her, since her home is outside of the redevelopment area. But she said change is inevitable in the community west of downtown Honolulu.
“It will change the character of the neighborhood, that’s for sure,” she said of the city’s plan. “Whether it’s good or bad, only time will tell.”
Styrofoam, trash, even chairs float in the brown water of Kapalama Canal at the intersection of Dillingham Boulevard and King Street.
The Ewa side is lined with tents belonging to homeless families that are overflowing with shopping carts.
Honolulu planners think the canal could be a vibrant space with sidewalks, bike lanes and homes overlooking the water.
The city’s plan for Kalihi is known as a transit-oriented development, or TOD, plan because it seeks to make the neighborhood easier for walking and relying on public transit.
It’s one of several plans that Honolulu officials are putting together to revitalize the areas surrounding planned rail stations, including Kapalama Canal, Kalihi Street and Middle Street stations in Kalihi.
Much of the revitalization would focus on the area surrounding the canal, said Renee Espiau, a planner at the city Department of Planning and Permitting. That’s where the highest densities and buildings as tall as 200 feet would be allowed under proposed zoning.
The plan includes adding 37 acres of open space to the existing 8.5 acres, including two large community parks and a beach park by Keehi Lagoon. The proposal also suggests building promenades along Middle Street and the canal to make them desirable areas to walk, run or bike. Renderings show pedestrian bridges across the canal and mixed-use developments facing the waterfront.
The city also wants to eventually relocate the Oahu Community Correctional Center and replace it with housing, a park and community services.
All in all, the city estimates there’s the potential to increase residential units from 3,700 to 9,700; commercial space from less than 4.2 million square feet to over 4.5 million square feet; and office and industrial space from 714,000 square feet to 1,165,000 square feet.
Harrison Rue, the city’s director of TOD, said there are no plans to condemn property. Instead, the plan includes incentives for landowners such as reducing parking requirements and providing property tax incentives to build sooner.
Cathy Camp, a development director at Kamehameha Schools Bishop Estate, said that the trust is considering developing as many as 2,000 housing units on 10 acres surrounding the canal, including two towers and mid-rise buildings.
“The plans right now are very fluid,” Camp said. “We’re looking at a lot of different alternatives.”
More affordable housing sounds good to Dominic Inocelda, a clinical administrator at the Susannah Wesley Community Center in Kalihi, who says many existing homes are overcrowded.
He also hopes the rail could help workers get to jobs downtown or at Ala Moana.
But he wonders how much the community knows about what’s in store. At a recent meeting about the Kalihi TOD plan, he doesn’t remember seeing many people who looked like immigrants, even though the neighborhood is mostly made up of residents from places like the Philippines and other Pacific islands.
“Maybe the question of what impact it will have on them hasn’t hit them yet until things start to happen,” he said.
Like Inocelda, Louise Cayetano is excited about how the plan could help Kalihi residents. Cayetano, who has worked as an elementary school teacher in Kalihi for 23 years, said many of her students’ families don’t have cars, and more sidewalks with better lighting, along with bike lanes, would help them. She hopes the revitalization can extend to other parts of Kalihi that aren’t included in the plan.
But even though she thinks it would be nice for Kapalama Canal to look more like the Ala Wai Canal, she wonders what will happen to the businesses that are already there.
“Property taxes will go up, businesses are going to have to pay more and it’s going to push out a lot of these mom and pop businesses that the community appreciates having,” she said. “That’s what I fear.”
Cayetano isn’t alone. Housing prices are rising in Kakaako, Oahu’s first “transit-oriented development” district, and although Kalihi — with its prison, public housing and large immigrant population — might be a working-class community now, some wonder whether the area might not be destined for a similar fate.
Research shows that property taxes tend to rise when rail is built, which could lead to higher rents for those who live nearby.
Camp from KSBE said she’s aware of such concerns and the trust has been working to help business owners in Kakaako relocate when necessary. She imagines that Kalihi businesses could be helped in the same way.
“You have an existing neighborhood that needs to be embraced because you have businesses there that are thriving,” she said. “As they’re being displaced, we look for options as to what’s available in the market.”
She stressed that the plans are very preliminary.
Espiau from DPP said the city doesn’t have a plan yet for mitigating rising property values but there are possibilities, including providing incentives for new developments to save space for old tenants.
She emphasizes that the plan is still merely conceptual. The Honolulu Planning Commission needs to consider it, and then the City Council. Only after that will the city consider changes to existing zoning.
Espiau said that the city is aiming to have construction underway at the canal by 2019 or 2020 to coincide with rail.
“It will take decades for the full build-out of the plan if it ever comes into fruition,” she said.
There are potential obstacles. Environmental concerns about the water quality in the canal could limit improvements, and limited sewer capacity could hinder residential development. Infrastructure improvements would likely require millions of taxpayer dollars and partnerships with developers.
“There’s a lot of big dreams in the plan but only so much money to go around,” Espiau said.
That’s good news to critics like Paul Lee, who owns a party supplies store bordering Kapalama Canal.
“Every time they talk about rezoning, it means money,” he said. “I don’t know if they really think about average people.”
City officials held community meetings and sent out thousands of surveys to residents in English, Tagalog and Ilocano. But Lee, who moved to Hawaii from Taiwan, hadn’t heard anything about the plan. Like Cayetano, he’s worried about whether property values would rise and if so, where he would go.
“If they raise the rent, how can we survive?” Lee said.