- Special Projects
The 1977 decision to transform fields of sugar cane in West Oahu into a new city known as Kapolei is one of Honolulu’s most significant planning decisions.
Nearly $11 billion has been spent on major infrastructure, commercial and industrial improvements in the Kapolei region over the last 10 years, and billions more are expected.
But some urban planners now think that starting a community from scratch miles away from downtown Honolulu was a bad idea.
Originally envisioned as a solution for Honolulu’s affordable housing crisis and bad traffic congestion, Kapolei is still largely a residential community. Many residents spend hours commuting to and from urban Honolulu for work.
The decision to leapfrog growth into Kapolei has had the added effect of promoting development on what had once been productive farmland and creating urban sprawl.
In an ideal world, some planners think Kapolei would not have been developed the way it has been. Instead, Honolulu would include more high-density low-rise and mid-rise buildings, rather than so many single-family homes and skyscrapers.
“It has been a mistake and now we are paying in a dear way, in many ways,” said Luciano Minerbi, a planner who has taught at the University of Hawaii since 1969.
Planning principles have evolved since Kapolei was first carved out as the Second City in the 1977 Oahu General Plan. At that time, “smart growth” and “sustainability” hadn’t gained widespread popularity among urban planners.
“It has been a mistake and now we are paying in a dear way, in many ways.” — UH professor Luciano Minerbi
Concentrating growth on the west side of the island was considered a progressive decision compared with allowing development to spread throughout Central Oahu and up the Windward coast.
But today, many planners argue that Honolulu would have been better served to grow more compactly and intensify the urban core between Kaimuki and Waipahu. They point to the principles of smart growth which include preserving farmland and directing growth toward existing communities.
“For thousands of years we were building cities around people but in the last 80 we have been building more around cars than around people,” said Gil Penalosa, executive director of the Canada-based nonprofit 8-80 Cities that conducts research, education and consulting about creating sustainable, walkable cities. “It is very, very important to stop growing the city and start building around public transit.”
Kapolei is a master-planned community built on former sugarcane and pineapple fields owned largely by Campbell Estate, a major landowner in Hawaii. That estate included the land holdings owned by industrialist James Campbell and in 2007 was replaced by the James Campbell Co., a real estate development company.
Campbell Estate first drew up a plan to develop its land in West Oahu as early as 1954. But it wasn’t until the late 1970s that city officials decided to focus development in West Oahu and build a city that could rival Honolulu in terms of population and jobs.
According to the latest available data from the 2013 American Community Survey, Kapolei is a 4.14-square mile “census-designated place” that is home to about 15,500 residents, a small fraction of the nearly 1 million people who live on Oahu. In comparison, Mililani Town in Central Oahu has over 28,000 people with nearly twice the density per square mile.
Still, many people consider Kapolei to include surrounding neighborhoods such as Makakilo and Honokai Hale that bring the population up to 112,000.
But however the community is defined geographically, it hasn’t become the self-sustaining city that was originally envisioned where people can both live and work. Instead, it’s largely a residential area where people commute to work in urban Honolulu, fighting terrible rush-hour traffic both morning and evening.
Part of the reason Kapolei hasn’t fulfilled its promise is because it has been slow to grow. Although the 1977 General Plan is seen as the genesis of Kapolei, it wasn’t until 1990 that Campbell Estate finally broke ground. While residential development has taken off, businesses have been slow to move west.
Former Gov. John Waihee, who served from 1986 to 1994, was one of the driving forces behind Kapolei. He says now that building the Second City was one of his top priorities largely because of the need for affordable housing to counteract rising home prices spurred by Japanese investment in Hawaii. He also wanted to alleviate traffic congestion by creating a self-contained city away from the urban core.
The Waihee administration negotiated with Campbell Estate to obtain free land in West Oahu in exchange for zoning approvals. Waihee established the Hawaii Housing and Finance Development Corporation in 1978 to allow the state to aggressively subsidize affordable housing in what would become Kapolei.
Nearly 30 years later, Kapolei homes are somewhat less expensive than other parts of the island. But a relative lack of jobs in Kapolei means that the traffic between West Oahu and downtown Honolulu has only gotten worse.
Waihee said he sought to attract Motorola to Kapolei, but was unable to convince the company’s chief executives to move there. Today, Kapolei is home to several government offices including Kapolei Hale, Kapolei Judiciary Complex and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. A short drive from downtown Kapolei is the University of Hawaii West Oahu campus.
Residents and developers say it’s only a matter of time before the area grows.
More than $10.9 billion has been spent in the last 10 years on major infrastructure, commercial and industrial improvements in the Kapolei region, according to a 2014 analysis by the consulting firm Plasch Econ Pacific.
Another $6.5 billion is expected in upcoming construction activity. The James Campbell Co.’s long-range master plan envisions thousands more homes and a thriving commercial center.
Development is expected to stretch from Ewa to Ko Olina Resort, a short drive west of Kapolei Hale.
Policymakers created Kapolei largely in response to concerns that urban Honolulu had become too congested and too many high-rises were being built. At the time, it was considered the better alternative to letting development expand throughout Central Oahu and along the windward coast.
But the Kapolei of today contains more sprawl than many, even Waihee, would liked to have seen.
The shortcomings of the project are more stark in light of the growing popularity of smart growth, an urban planning philosophy that seeks to create healthier, happier, eco-friendly communities where people don’t have to rely on cars to get around.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the philosophy follows 10 principles including mixing land uses, creating walkable neighborhoods, preserving open space and strengthening and directing development toward existing communities.
Steve Kelly, vice president of development at the James Campbell Co., says that Kapolei is an example of smart growth because it limits development within the city’s urban growth boundary. He points to the Kapolei urban design plan as a guiding document that incorporates smart growth principles such as mixed-use zoning.
“Cities do not just happen overnight,” Kelly said in an email. “It will take decades more for Kapolei to continue its densification and to get to what most people would consider a dense downtown.”
He noted that there will always be a high demand for single-family homes.
Geoff Anderson, chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based Smart Growth America, thinks that Honolulu officials should be commended for designating Kapolei as an area for growth.
“It’s a relatively unusual thing to say we are going to grow and we should plan for where that growth is going to go and we should plan that it’s done in a coherent and smart way,” he said, noting that Honolulu contains sprawl better than many other American cities.
But merely designating an area for growth isn’t enough for planners like Eliot Allen, who leads the Portland, Oregon, sustainable planning firm Criterion Planner.
He considers Kapolei to be “classic Irvine, California auto-oriented single-family subdivisions.” The city of Irvine was one of the influences for Campbell Estate planners.
Allen laughed and said “Heavens, no,” when asked if he would ever plan a city based on Irvine. “Everything you do has to be walkable, that’s sort of non-negotiable,” he said.
“You don’t leapfrog, you only grow either through urban infill, redevelopment, contiguous development,” he said.
Minerbi, the UH professor, says the problem with plopping down a new development far away from the urban core is that even if the land nearby isn’t zoned for development, its value rises and development becomes inevitable.
He points to the recent rezoning of productive farmland to make way for the 11,750-home development Hoopili as an example.
Minerbi says he has always pushed for what he calls high-density, low-rise development in Honolulu: For example, four- to nine-story buildings along main roads that are short enough for people to know their neighbors and emphasize more walking and use of public transit.
Perhaps that could have helped the long commute times that Kapolei residents face heading to and from urban Honolulu for work. The traffic congestion creates a major quality of life issue as families have to eat breakfast and dinner in the car or employees have to spend hours on a bus.
Like Minerbi, Penalosa from 8-80 Cities says high-density low-rise or mid-rise buildings is a better housing option. And he doesn’t like to see either too many single-family homes or skyscrapers.
“Once you go above eight or nine (stories), people start having more in common with the birds than with people,” he said.
Even those who think that building Kapolei began as a good idea question whether it’s been executed well.
George Atta, director of the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting, said he’s “a little disappointed” that what’s been built has been low-density low-rises rather than the more compact development that the zoning allows (up to 150 feet).
In retrospect, he realizes that he was naïve as a young planner to think that a good plan would be enough to create a vibrant city given the market demand for single-family homes.
More recently some new communities, like developer D.R. Horton’s Mehana project, have incorporated both small businesses and homes. But Atta said he thinks even Mehana could have been more densely built.
Even D.R. Horton’s latest development, Hoopili, which will be relatively dense surrounding the planned rail station, includes 400 acres of single-family homes that the developer said are necessary to give consumers options.
John Whalen, a consultant at Plan Pacific and former Honolulu planning director, says that in an ideal world, he would recast the form of urban Honolulu to include more high density low- or mid-rise buildings.
Like Atta, he thinks development in Kapolei and Ewa is more sprawling than what was originally intended. “In the initial stages it seems a little bit indistinguishable from other suburban development,” he said.
Personally, he wouldn’t live in Kapolei because he doesn’t like the suburban feel. “It’s just not me,” he said.
The decision about whether or not to designate Kapolei as the Second City is often framed in terms of the debate between concentrating growth along the Windward coast or in the Ewa plain.
The 1964 Oahu General Plan supported pockets of development throughout the island, including an industrial area in Kahaluu and a resort in Makapuu.
Focusing development on the Ewa plain was considered a push toward more compact growth that would avoid the sprawl that could have occurred otherwise.
But creating the Second City wasn’t the only option. According to Whalen, city officials also considered intensifying uses in the urban corridor from Kaimuki on the east to Waipahu on the west.
That alternative came with a range of barriers: It would be hard for developers to consolidate the parcels owned by numerous small landowners within urban Honolulu.
Redeveloping parts of the city to accommodate growth would have likely met resistance from neighbors as well as required significant investment in city infrastructure. The 1968 effort to create Kukui Gardens, an affordable housing development in downtown Honolulu, dislocated some residents and sparked a negative reaction to urban renewal, Whalen said.
In addition, the high cost of land and infrastructure could have made it hard to build affordable housing and provide a range of housing options, Whalen said.
Many people preferred single-family homes and didn’t want the city to become more congested. A survey of Honolulu residents conducted in 1973 and published in 1978 found that of the 400 respondents who lived from Kahala to Kakaako, most were unhappy with the number of high-rises being built. They felt the population was growing too fast and wanted to protect scenic views and viewplanes.
Some 62 percent of respondents wanted more single-family homes while 67 percent strongly disliked high-rise apartment buildings. That sentiment was echoed throughout the city.
In some ways, building a city from scratch in Kapolei was the easier option because that appeased people who lived in town and city officials only had to work with one major landowner, at the time Campbell Estate.
“The best plans are not going to work unless there’s economic reality,” said Henry Eng, a former city planning director and former planner at Campbell Estate. “The reality just didn’t seem to be there in town.”
He said it’s been a struggle to get developers to understand the importance of building higher density developments. Part of the challenge is that many people prefer to buy single-family homes, driving developers to meet the demand.
“There’s a balance that needs to be achieved between what the consumer wants and what would be good planning,” Eng said.
“Everybody can look at something and hindsight is always better. But it’s a question of having a plan and then what are the forces around driving it, how well do you do with what you’ve got and what’s the political will.” — Former Gov. John Waihee
Eng believes that the Second City meets most of the principles of smart growth except for directing growth to an existing urban corridor. While he likes what’s been built, he does wish that the University of Hawaii West Oahu was closer to the center of Kapolei as originally intended.
That’s a regret that Waihee also shares. He says placing a university at the core of Kapolei would have given the area more character and helped spur commercial growth, but that plan was changed by subsequent governors. Still, he’s generally happy with how Kapolei turned out in terms of providing affordable housing and serving as an economic driver.
A former city planner himself, Waihee thinks compact development is good in theory but creating Kapolei made more practical sense at the time.
“It was a series of communities that were supposed to be based on a Hawaii lifestyle,” he said. “Everybody can look at something and hindsight is always better. But it’s a question of having a plan and then what are the forces around driving it, how well do you do with what you’ve got and what’s the political will.”
Penalosa visited Honolulu last December to give the keynote speech at the city’s conference on transit-oriented development, the practice of redeveloping around rail stations to create communities where people don’t have to drive.
Even though he thinks Honolulu has a lot of sprawl, he told Civil Beat earlier this month, “It’s never too late. The population is growing, it will continue to grow over the next 30 years. That’s why it’s so urgent to make the changes now.”
Although the city has a TOD plan for East Kapolei near UH West Oahu, Atta from the Department of Planning and Permitting said that incorporating TOD in downtown Kapolei may have to wait until a rail extension is brought there.
Still, Atta said he’s currently working on one project that could decrease the number of car lanes from six to four on Farrington Highway in order to add a bike lane.
Meanwhile, Kapolei continues to grow. DeBartolo Development is building a long-awaited shopping mall that will be anchored by Macy’s on land leased from the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. Another upcoming project is Kapolei Lofts, a 500-unit rental housing project by Forest City and Kapolei Properties that will be mostly affordable units rather than market-rate.
There’s also room for more government services to expand. Together, the state and city own 45 acres that have yet to be developed.
For an increasing number of residents, Kapolei is starting to fulfill its promise as a place where they can both live and work.
Mel Chung moved to Kapolei almost four years ago. With a small baby and a limited budget, Kapolei made the most sense when it came to finding affordable housing. After her office moved to Kapolei last year, she’s been able to walk to work in 20 minutes or bike there in 10 minutes.
She says not having to drive an hour and a half to work in urban Honolulu has given her more time to spend with her kids and improved her relationship with her husband.
From her perspective, Kapolei is getting more crowded. But having moved to Hawaii from Hong Kong, she still considers it to be a suburb.
“It’s more and more like a city, but not a city yet,” she said.