Urban Hawaii: What Does Future Hold for Honolulu — and Us?
It is time to explore what the transformation of Kakaako says about the evolution of our city. Our new column looks at how Honolulu got to where it is now and, perhaps more importantly, where it is going.
Editor’s Note:Kakaako. Kapolei. Koa Ridge and Hoopili. Envision Laie. Oahu continues its own particular pace and process of development and urbanization. Today we begin a new regular column, “Urban Hawaii,” that seeks to examine how Oahu is changing and why. Don Wallace, a well-regarded author and writer, has long had an affinity for Hawaii; he married a local girl in 1976. The former literary and film editor for the Honolulu Weekly, Don and wife, Mindy Pennybacker (former editor of the Weekly) have made Honolulu their full-time home since 2009. Don will be looking at our new urban environment as it emerges, with an eye toward what’s going right and what’s going wrong, along with what’s worked in other cities as well as in Hawaii’s past.
For the 30 minutes that I was stuck in Ala Moana Christmas traffic behind a giant tour bus, staring at the advertisement on its back, I was living the dream of the new urban Honolulu.
From Kewalo Basin to the beach park, pedestrians and cyclists thronged spacious waterway walkways. To my right, Ward Village’s sparkling stream ran through an esplanade that connected Ala Moana Boulevard to the Queen Street rail station. It, too, was filled with people, many hanging out in cafes or lolling by the babbling brook uncovered during construction.
Ahead lay the Kamehameha Schools SALT marketplace, inspired by the sort of repurposed buildings that draw hipsters and foodies like flies. And in between the Ward and Kamehameha Schools were the towers. Shiny, wavy, spires of glass, with low-rise townhouse fronts and rooftop gardens. They gave Kakaako the look of a Celestial City.
Too bad none of this exists. Yet.
A model maker’s maquette shows what some of the 60 acres at the expanded and improved Kewalo Basin and the Ward Villages might look like.
The bus lurches forward a few feet and the advertisement on its back bores into my brain until I kind of get it — the appeal of the Aulani, the Disney Resort whose ad it is.
God knows I’d grab the chance for a staycation if I had to do this every day, like so many on the west side. Especially since their commute is three times longer than mine.
Somebody’s got to break it to the tourists that they can’t come to Hawaii anymore with the eager, slightly offensive dream of “going native.”
Looking at the ad, I really start thinking about the dreamscape I’ve been communing with over the past few weeks as I visited developer sites on the Internet, reading the brochures and booklets, and, in the case of Ward Village, exploring the extremely cool interactive architectural models on the second floor of the restored Ossipoff-designed IBM Building. (Open to the public and highly recommended.)
Yes, Kakaako is coming our way but that’s not the half of it.
This isn’t some satellite development like Ko Olina or Mililani or Hawaii Kai or the giant mushroom-like Polynesian Cultural Center that’s sprouting up in Laie and Kuhuku. This is ground zero Honolulu.
The model swimming pool of the proposed Waiea tower built on the rooftop of its adjoining townhouses.
Since the 1840s Hawaii has been packaged and sold to the world as Eden, Paradise, Shangri-La. Nature and the dream of lush tropical living has been our siren call.
That’s how we drummed up business until, in the last couple of decades, the sheer mass of people coming here broke the bubble around Waikiki. In the confusion, the bobble-headed hula girl in the grass skirt escaped and we haven’t seen her since.
Something had to take her place. Guess what? That something is us. They want to call us urbanites, now. City dwellers. Which means we’ll have more in common with those often pale people coming from San Francisco, Des Moines, Minneapolis, Chicago, Houston, New York City and, of course, Tokyo.
There are ironies here: Somebody’s got to break it to the tourists that they can’t come to Hawaii anymore with the eager, slightly offensive dream of “going native.”
They — and we — have got to learn to love “going urban” and our new urban ways. The question is: What does that mean? What will the new urban Honolulu person be like? How will we evolve?
Those are just some of the things I found myself thinking about in traffic.
The view from a model apartment in the IBM building with Ala Moana Beach Park and Diamond Head in the background.
Wanted: 12 More Kakaakos?
“Urban” and “Hawaii” are two words locals aren’t used to hearing, or putting, together. But apparently we are getting used to it. Growth-slowing legal measures and candidates have often gone down to defeat; enough of us voted for this, or didn’t vote and by default acquiesced.
“Urban” and “Hawaii” are two words locals aren’t used to hearing, or putting, together. But apparently we are getting used to it.
But don’t you dare call it a prelude to a boom. Paul Brewbaker, a trusty pro-growth voice for decades at Bank of Hawaii and now on his own, says in the 2015 edition of Kakaako Magazine produced for the Howard Hughes Corp, that we’re actually under-developing. (The publication is available at the IBM building showroom and around Kakaako.)
Brewbaker compares 2014’s housing development rate unfavorably to 1944 — a war year, when entire armies were flowing through Honolulu. Which is a little worrisome — is this a hint that new armies are coming?
The bottom line: When I do the math for the 3,200 approved units to be built in Kakaako, on top of about 400 that have already been completed, it always ends up looking weird, and I go back and check my math. Are they saying we need 12 more Kakaakos starting right now or our children are doomed, in the words of one local development booster, “to not enjoy our island lifestyle”?
If so, then it seems a seismic shift is upon us — one that will lead to a landscape changed forever, at a scale not seen since the arrival of Jet Age tourism in 1959.
The lucky few will enjoy amenities including a spa, theatre, library and an infinity pool.
From Sprawl to Urbanization
As the bus shudders and halts, I wonder if it’s reductive to blame traffic for everything. You know, the automobile did this. It made sprawl possible. After 30 years of building outwards, the suburban dream collapsed, killed by ever-longer commutes.
Urban rail like Honolulu’s served existing development; the automobile opened up new lands for development, as it did on the mainland, which gave urban planners a reason to kill mass transit here, as well as in places like Los Angeles in the 1940s and 1950s. On the other hand, the advent of the automobile offered the average person an identity in the form of their own hub-capped chariot. People just had to have it.
People here are passionate about getting what’s local right — and merciless to those who don’t.
That huge step toward individualism makes me think that maybe the selling of this new Kakaako will work simply because we are ready for this stage of the evolution of Honolulu.
Look around you: people are texting, taking selfies, watching videos on their phones, yakking about the Kardashians, drinking bubble tea and going to the mall for entertainment. They look ripe for a label for their new urban identity: KakaLocos?
This is a good place to pause. The bus isn’t going anywhere for a while. The traffic is murder. And the idea of the Aulani, which I have always dismissed as inauthentic, for tourists, is starting to look kind of groovy.
The 60-acre Howard Hughes Ward Village maquette.
Why not seek my R&R in a facsimile of plantation/surfer Hawaii? Just pull off the road and see how the Imagineers blended our culture in the Disney Cuisinart before pouring it into Jell-O molds borrowed from The Lion King.
What’s the difference between that and a master-planned development sprinkled with the sea salt of “authenticity”?
Safely home at last, though, I wonder. Surely we don’t need a resort to tell us who we are. Hawaii is already real. We’re da kine; the epitome of the down-home authentic.
People here are passionate about getting what’s local right — and merciless to those who don’t. Not for nothing is our politician’s litmus test a public embrace of Spam musubi and loco moco.
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Don Wallace's most recent book is "The French House: An American Family, a Ruined Maison, and the Village that Restored Them All" (Sourcebooks, 2014) and he wrote the documentary film "Those Who Came Before: The Musical Journey of Eddie Kamae." A longtime magazine editor, he was an urban pioneer in New York City’s Chelsea district and involved in the creation of the internationally celebrated Chelsea High Line. He lives in Honolulu.