How you feel about the urbanization of Honolulu and Hawaii can depend on where you’re coming from.

I’m coming from traffic. I’m looking ahead at more gridlock as I approach the IBM building at the corner of Ala Moana Boulevard and Auahi Street in my battered Nissan. It makes me tense.  I’d much rather be walking.

I know the developers of Kakaako would rather I walk, too. “Walkability” is a recurring theme in Kakaako publicity, speeches, websites and promo films.

View of construction cranes in Kakaako with future developments planned.  20 nov 2014. photo Cory Lum.

Construction cranes rise in Kakaako.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Walkability to most of us means an ideal combination of exercise, getting some air, being with friends, checking out other people and maybe grabbing a latte or a shave ice. It’s nice to think our expectations might dovetail with the calculations of urban designers.

But, just so you know, their main goal in getting us out of the car isn’t quite so romantic; it’s about channeling us in front of retail outlets.

“Basically, a retailer has 1.2 seconds to catch your attention,” says long-time urban planner Charles Eadie of Hamilton & Associates.

Hmmm, 1.2 seconds isn’t a lot. And that can’t happen if you’re stuck on Ala Moana Boulevard staring at the bumper in front of you.

Heading for the Ala Moana mall, I always feel I’m walking point for a platoon headed into a sales jungle with the danger of ambush all around.

But this mission is different. I’m about to enter what you might call the belly of the beast, the local headquarters of the Howard Hughes Corp., developer of the 60-acre Ward Village. The HHC got its start in real estate in 1990 with Summerlin, a 22,000-acre community created from scratch outside of Las Vegas.

Given the climate of Hawaii’s housing debate, it can be hard to warm up to the seductive language of developments like Summerlin, “master-planned communities” full of “curated experiences” and “luxury amenities.”

We like to think this has not been the language of Hawaii nei — even though we helped invent the genre with the creation of the Ala Moana Shopping Center. The world’s largest mall when it opened in 1959, it’s still the largest open-air shopping center in the world.

We went to Ala Moana back in the day with a sense of wonder and, yes, pride. We built this. My wife’s grandfather, a former Dole pineapple luna, bought me my first blue blazer there in 1976. I got my first job in Manhattan wearing that blazer (Ralph Lauren Chaps).

Ala Moana still thrills some of us. I met a friend from Hilo the other day. We could hang out because his kids wanted to spend the day in Ala Moana Center. After all, what is a mall if not a free babysitter?

But it is only free until you see what the kids charged on the credit card, but — it felt good while it lasted. And raises the question: what rude beast is born when you let TJ Maxx and Forever 21 watch the kids? Kakaako?

Investors from Shanghai to Moscow savor the gated estates, concierge buildings — all those international investment-grade properties with the ambiance of world-class hotels. Someone built it, and they came. And they continue to come. Last week was the open house for penthouses in the HHC towers.

So the future is arriving. Or it is already here. And I’m not sure where we locals fit, either. That’s just in case you wondered where I’m coming from. Personally, and bank account-wise.


South Street Seaport in Manhattan is a market area whose rehabilitation transformed the neighborhood.

Flickr: Michael Daddino

Life Is a Festival Marketplace

I’m here today to try to put a face on Kakaako. It isn’t the face of Howard Hughes, the man. Notoriously reclusive in his later years with long hair and perhaps even longer fingernails, he wasn’t the kind of guy many people want to front their ohana.

Anyway, the modern HHC has nothing to do with the obsessive-compulsive man who created two movie studios, invented luxury airplanes like the Spruce Goose, raised sunken Russian subs for the CIA and was impersonated by a pulp novelist for years while he hid inside a sterile suite in an empty Las Vegas hotel.

Instead, the HHC is a creature of mergers and spinoffs and stock plays. At one time it was part of the very parent, General Growth Properties, that owned the development rights to the Ward Village area of Kakaako. After a 2010 spinoff when GGP went into bankruptcy, the HHC took Kakaako off GGP’s hands in 2012.

Heading for the Ala Moana mall, I always feel I’m walking point for a platoon headed into a sales jungle with the danger of ambush all around.

As cold and impersonal as all this sounds, there is a tradition of highly competent social engineering through master-planned communities inside this tale. Basically, a couple of the country’s most successful waterfront revitalizations, and several of its original and largest start-from-scratch communities, like Summerlin, come from the GGP/HHC hui, which includes another, seminal developer, the Rouse Company.

If you’ve visited and liked Boston’s Faneuil Hall seafront and New York City’s South Street Seaport, then you’ve fallen under the spell of Rouse Company’s main innovation, the “festival marketplace.” Though Rouse was absorbed by GGP in 2004, we’re still living in its world of theme-park-like commercial spaces filled with niche boutiques, open-air kiosks, repurposed and historical elements, and stocked with approved buskers and entertainers.

It’s safe to say you’ll encounter the look and feel, the vocabulary and grammar of Faneuil and South Street, in the new Kakaako.

Both Faneuil and South Street were historic waterfronts that went seedy and dismal. Their renovations lifted entire neighborhoods into affluence.

I lived through South Street’s turnaround in the 1980s. I mourned the loss of the old, dingy-scary vaults under the Brooklyn Bridge, the gigantic freezing noisy fish market, with its surly fishmongers and Mafia stevedores. We boasted of dodging junkies and muggers, chugged paper cups of beer at McSorley’s Ale House with the junior wolves of Wall Street. But what seems cool and adventurous when you’re young loses its appeal when you’re pushing a stroller down the middle of a street because the sidewalks are foul and home to desperate and lost souls.

When the new South Street Seaport opened, I could take my kid. There were tall ships, a museum, a lively waterfront. What the Rouse Company did for the Seaport was, in the end, a vast improvement.

Now, more than 20 years later, it’s being renovated and revitalized because, after Hurricane Sandy, it needs a facelift.

And guess who’s doing it? Howard Hughes Corp.

Faneuil Market in Boston is another area that has changed dramatically, uplifting the neighborhood.

Flickr: GaryT70

Entering the Belly of the Beast

We’re inside the IBM Building. At last.

So, even though I used a loaded phrase like “belly of the beast,” this is where the going gets tricky. Big can be bad, and often is when it comes to development. The times when big is good for development, however, it can be a game-changer in a good way.

And this is the crux of HHC’s argument about its role in Kakaako.

As for the face of Kakaako — or at least the 60 acres Howard Hughes owns — his name is Nick Vanderboom and he’s HHC’s senior vice president of development of all its Hawaii properties. He has not only been highly visible in the news but was also agreeable to meeting up.

Nick is tall, brisk and articulate. All traces of the former USC tight end whose teams won a couple Rose Bowls have been erased by the Master of Real Estate Development. The first thing he talks about is how HHC saved the Ossipoff-designed IBM building from the demolition slated by General Growth Properties.

Nick points out a window. “This used to be a parking lot,” he says.

He describes how the lot, now elevated, is a dedicated event space. On the second weekend of the month, HIFF holds a Courtyard Film Festival here. A power yoga class meets here; Nick attends on occasion. There are also parties and community events.

The second floor interactive display area is dominated by a large yellow oval in the center, overlaid with delicate sketches. You almost have to squint to realize that it’s telling the early story of Kakaako and the Nuuanu ahupuaa with characters from Hawaiian mythology. This reticence is, to me, Hawaiian.

Our whole approach, says Nick, is “Do not let this history be forgotten,” which was, he adds, “the frequent last line of a mele.”

It is a dual sales effort: to sell potential buyers on homes and to sell people like me, who are priced out or uninterested in urban living, on the idea that Ward Village is going to be an upgrade over what was here before.

The mural is by Solomon Enos, a respected cultural practitioner from a Makaha family whose members are active in every phase of our current Hawaiian rejuvenation — from farming to learning to health to serving on President Barack Obama’s advisory committee for Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. Solomon has lent his talents to elementary schools, books, the Sheraton and Royal Hawaiian hotels, and Disney’s Aulani.

Now, whatever your feelings are about Aulani — and some of mine are here — it seems to me that HHC is putting its money where its mouth is, between the patronage of Enos and the $51 million renovation of the historic IBM building. The latter means foregoing the additional revenue that tearing it down and erecting another tower would bring in.

Yes, they avoided a preservation fight and the calculation might seem pragmatic. But seeding goodwill at the start of a project is often an overlooked strategy among developers in Hawaii.

Nick mentions that the entire Ward Village site has been awarded Platinum LEED Neighborhood Development certification, the highest designation. There are no other projects with certification status in Hawaii and relatively few on the mainland. You really can’t get greener than that, and still house people.

Next Nick explains how Bishop Museum worked on the materials for the interactive free-standing maquette of Kakaako. Visually, it’s a terrific display, and the various information overlays show the history and appearance of the area over time. Push a button and you even get all the surf breaks from Panics to Diamond Head. (Visiting hours are 10 p.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week — and it’s free.)

Ultimately, though, the second-floor maquettes and the sixth-floor showroom models exist for one purpose, and that is to sell. It is a dual sales effort: to sell potential buyers on homes and to sell people like me, who are priced out or uninterested in urban living, on the idea that Ward Village is going to be an upgrade over what was here before.

And here is where the glory of the Honolulu waterfront, from Diamond Head down to Kewalo’s and on to Ewa, wipes my brain clean of any second thoughts.

That would be the old Ward Center, the Murukai Marketplace, the various shops that have come and gone. A couple, like Na Mea Native Books, have been mainstays for our life and for the Hawaiian communities; others we’ve passed by without a glance.

Everyone has always said that parking was difficult at Ward. It also felt claustrophobic. And the architecture was that of an enclosed mall, focused inward, lacking in grace notes.

One clue for me as to whether something is worth saving, like the IBM building, is to imagine the whole or even a part of it removed and put on display, like a sculpture or a piece of history.

Paris, Rome, London, Athens — every major European city is full of bits and pieces of history that are just there. And as a visitor from suburban America there is nothing more startling than to see a chunk of masonry popping out of a smooth precast concrete retaining wall and to note a tiny, corroded plaque that says it’s, oh, four times older than the United States.

The elements of the Ward Center area don’t meet any such criteria — for me, anyway. Other parts of Kakaako, yes. (And I’ll address which ones in a later column.)

Up to the sixth floor we go, to the showrooms and model apartments. And here is where the glory of the Honolulu waterfront, from Diamond Head down to Kewalo’s and on to Ewa, wipes my brain clean of any second thoughts.

If I had the money, I’d reach for my checkbook.

Time elapsed: 1.2 seconds.

About the Author

  • Don Wallace
    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.