I saw a cartoon a long time ago that showed an aging husband and wife sitting in rocking chairs on the front porch of their farmhouse staring out across their fenced yard. The farmhouse was encircled by hundreds of new houses, apartment buildings, shopping malls and busy streets. The husband says to his wife, “We used to live in the country — now we live in the city — and we haven’t moved!”

They have gotten caught in a phenomenon sometimes referred to as urban crawl.

In West Oahu, the Hoopili project that will replace hundreds of acres of prime agricultural land with hundreds of acres of homes got a green light from the Honolulu City Council. The 15,000 homes and the workforce that the project will house conjure up expectations of live-work-play integration, and that commercial, industrial, business and retail development will follow.

Although Hoopili, as I understand it, has one last hurdle — securing state Land Use Commission approval — that seems likely to happen.

Hoopili Agriculture Farmland Land West Oahu Rail

Rail columns over farmland in West Oahu signal that the area will become a 11,750-home community known as Hoopili.

Anita Hofschneider/Civil Beat

In Central Oahu, another large urbanization project, Koa Ridge, appears to be on its way, too. This 575-acre project, when complete, will dramatically expand the urban footprint of Mililani Town with 3,500 new homes and an ambitious mix of commercial, retail, business and industrial activity that will creep toward Waipahu and the West Oahu plain. Like Hoopili, this project also displaces agricultural lands.

On the North Shore there is the $1.2-billion expansion of the Turtle Bay Resort, whose footprint is slated to include two additional hotels, as well as residential development.

A Frisbee throw down the highway, Envision Laie — a development proposal that includes several hundred more acres of housing, commercial-retail space and a hotel — is nearing the end of the approvals gauntlet.

Hawaii does not have the luxury of vast expanses of space. So there must be a low tolerance for mistakes in land use planning.

The combined impact of these last two development projects will help make those areas into an ambitious sprawl of homes, commercial-retail spaces and two new hotels. They will place that entire section of Oahu coastline, which has a still-evident rural feel, on a road to urban expansion that is rarely reversed.

These new development projects in west, central, and northeast Oahu will, as they radiate out from their epicenters, expand the urban footprint until the geo-cultural environment and sense of place that give these communities their identity becomes the stuff of memory and photographs.

I don’t argue against the primary role of these development initiatives in meeting the demand for housing and jobs. Yes, we need affordable housing. And jobs. But, it seems that the placement of housing projects is far more developer- or landowner-driven than they are driven by good public policy that decides how, when and where such projects should occur.

Here’s the irony with respect to meeting housing demand: We knew this day was coming in the 1980s.

Construction workers build the foundation of Waiea part of new buildings in the Kakaako/Ward area. 28 jan 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Construction cranes, like this one from January, have been ubiquitous in the sky above Kakaako in recent years.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

That is when the Hawaii Legislature, rather rudely, ripped Kakaako out from under county planning jurisdiction. And, in its wisdom, the Legislature, with its self-created jurisdiction over Kakaako, aggressively pursued new public policy that advocated the burgeoning high-rise residential surge now taking place in that area.

The new policy mandated that developers provide a substantial amount of affordable housing in each new building to create a live-work-play district; and achieve better use of urban space by vertically stacking affordable housing to diminish the need for horizontal residential subdivision sprawl outside of Honolulu’s urban core.

Places lose their identity when urban sprawl lines roadways with strip malls, everywhere you look there are rows of national franchise logos, and the town you arrive in looks like the one you just left.

But the tradeoff didn’t happen because developers were allowed to shift affordable housing credits in Kakaako to other areas of Oahu. So now the high-rises are rising and urban sprawl is sprawling. The best intentions of the ’80s are falling far short of the vision. So, how does this somewhat helter-skelter urban growth happen?

We seem to have morphed into a government of regulators and defaulted our community growth planning to the developer community.

This column is not intended as an anti-development statement or an indictment of the developers involved. That’s what developers do. They propose development to the government. Then the government goes into due-diligence mode and makes decisions as to whether or not to approve what is being proposed.

Turtle Bay Resort North Shore of Oahu. 12.18.13

The Turtle Bay Resort on the North Shore is set for expansion.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The intention of this column is to challenge both state and county policy makers, planners and elected officials to revisit the state land use designations for the County of Honolulu, as well as the Oahu Development Plan, which seems like a document from the past even though it is subject to periodic review and amendment.

Urban sprawl as a growth strategy is particularly hard on islands, which are especially sensitive to land-use and zoning mistakes. Decisions to alter vast acreages of community landscapes, irreversibly transforming the regional sense of place for those communities, touches on local government’s high level public trust responsibility to the citizenry.

Navigating the quality of growth for an island in the Pacific is one of the more difficult public policy challenges. Hawaii does not have the luxury of vast expanses of space. So there must be a low tolerance for mistakes in land use planning.

The globalized economy often shows up on islands like ours. Offshore investor groups often bring it here with investment models that, while suitable for continental application, are unsustainable as an island strategy.

I leave you with a thought about the phenomenon of “placelessness,” which is the ultimate result of urban sprawl. It can be seen in city after American city. Placelessness occurs when what was a unique place is transformed into any place.

Places lose their identity when urban sprawl lines roadways with strip malls, everywhere you look there are rows of national franchise logos, and the town you arrive in looks like the one you just left. That is when you are approaching placelessness. West Oahu is at high-risk of becoming placeless.

Am I joined by others in my state of apprehension about the quality of growth for Oahu? I hope so.

In spite of my aspersions, my words are not about finding fault with any person or government institution. They are part of an attempt to raise levels of consciousness in the hope that, in the end, a light is turned on in the head of people who can make a difference.

About the Author

  • Peter Apo
    A former legislator, Peter Apo is a trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the president of the Peter Apo Company LLC, a cultural tourism consulting company to the visitor industry. He has also been the arts and culture director for Honolulu, the city's director of Waikiki Development and served as special assistant on Hawaiian affairs to Gov. Ben Cayetano. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of OHA or other organizations he is involved in.