Sidewalk cafes are rare in Honolulu, despite the city’s famously good weather.

That’s because a city ordinance doesn’t allow them anywhere except in Waikiki. Kakaako, a state redevelopment district, is also exempt from the ban that’s in place by default because the city defines sidewalks as places for walking, not dining.

Harrison Rue, a city official who manages development around rail stations, hopes that a proposed bill to amend land use rules for transit-oriented development districts will get rid of that rule in downtown Honolulu, Chinatown and other neighborhoods where rail stations are planned.

The measure includes an amendment to the city’s land use ordinance, which governs how buildings are constructed on Oahu and their relationship with the streets.

667 Auahi Street site of Cocina restaurant where eaters can enjoy dining on benches located near the sidewalk.  Anita sidewalk cafe story. 18 sept 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Residents can enjoy sidewalk dining on this street in Kakaako because it’s a state redevelopment district. In most other parts of Honolulu, sidewalk cafes are illegal. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Those rules have repercussions for how people get around, what kinds of foot traffic small businesses can expect, and what Honolulu looks like.

Apart from allowing sidewalk cafes, the bill also would require new developments to provide pedestrian walkways and bicycle parking, while eliminating parking requirements for businesses and reducing them for homes.

Developers would also be able to apply for special permits to allow buildings to be taller and denser in exchange for providing community benefits such as open space and affordable housing.

“Back in the ’60s and ’70s we imported an idea from the mainland that doesn’t make sense for here, the idea that we should build our streets for cars, not people,” Rue said.

The bill is an attempt to reclaim the streets for people, he said. The Honolulu Planning Commission plans to take up the measure Sept. 30.

Denser, Taller, More Walkable

The land use ordinance is a set of laws that govern how buildings are developed. The idea behind the new amendment is to make streets more pedestrian-friendly once rail is built.

The city is also proposing a zone change in Waipahu that would allow some buildings near the planned rail station there to rise as high as 90 feet.

For nine years, the city has been producing a series of plans for the neighborhoods near the rail route, but these measures would finally put some ideas into action.

“The plans are built on people’s voices and what the landowners want to do, and this is just a tool to help implement them,” Rue said.

Tom Dinell, a longtime urban planning professor at the University of Hawaii, said the proposed ordinance is a “significant move in the right direction.”

Hiep Vu with wife right, Lethu thi Hoang at their coffee shop in Kakaako called ‘Insomnia’.  22 sept 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Hiep Vu with wife Lethu Thi Hoang own a coffee shop in Kakaako called Insomnia and enjoy being able to offer outdoor seating to their customers. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Sidewalk cafes, for example, help make streets inviting, he said. Walking along Auahi Street in Kakaako during lunchtime makes that point clear. On one recent afternoon, families gathered on benches outside a Mexican restaurant while one man read and sipped coffee at the nearby Brue Bar.

It’s a rare sight in Honolulu, but popular when it’s available. Lethu Hoang, who owns Insomnia Cafe in Kakaako, says providing tables and chairs on the sidewalk attracts younger customers.

“Young people now, they want to sit outside,” she said.

“Back in the ’60s and ’70s we imported an idea from the mainland that doesn’t make sense for here, the idea that we should build our streets for cars, not people.” — Harrison Rue, city official who manages development around rail stations

“Seeking to make the key streets lively with lots of activity, as this proposed ordinance aims at accomplishing, makes good sense everywhere and especially in TOD districts,” Dinell wrote in an email.

Rue said the bill is intended to encourage developers to revitalize the neighborhoods around rail stations and encourage people not to rely on cars to get around.

Several studies have shown that walkability is good for cities economically, in addition to providing community health benefits.

While the bill would have some immediate benefits, much of it constitutes a long-term vision, Rue said, because many of the rules would apply only to people who are building or redeveloping.

Potential Challenges Ahead

Jeff Speck, a national urban planning expert and author of Walkable City, says the bill includes many standard, well-established proposals that urbanists like him have been pushing for decades.

Allowing sidewalk cafes, for example, “is a no-brainer,” he said.

But there are many challenges the bill might face before it becomes law.

“Typically when people try to do this or things like this, the biggest trouble you run into is neighbors who are wary of change,” Speck said. “In any planning effort, there’s a natural aversion to change.”

In particular, Speck says the city should be sure to engage communities to discuss the impacts of adding more density and decreasing parking requirements and how any negative impacts can be mitigated.

For example, eliminating parking requirements could increase competition for on-street parking. Speck said in Washington, D.C., one neighborhood instituted on-street parking permits so that residents would have priority.

There’s also the issue of higher property values. Rail is expected to increase values, and increasing density and walkability could have the same effect. While that’s a good thing for landowners, it could exacerbate Hawaii’s already expensive housing market.

On that front, the city is pursuing a separate affordable housing strategy to capitalize on the expected redevelopment around rail stations.

At the very least, the proposal may spark some debate about what Honolulu should look like. Linda Schatz from the group Better Block Hawaii says the organization often does pilot projects to help people consider space differently and re-imagine what the city should look like.

“Until you get at the emotional level and tug at the heartstring of what Honolulu could be, it’s really hard to get that dialogue,” she said. “This sort of enables an opening for a discussion to happen.”

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