I am working in my home office in our Diamond Head house. As I write this column, a bulldozer is rumbling over rocks and soil in the adjacent lot, 10 feet away from my office window.
The small mid-century house originally on the property behind the fence in front of me was torn down in February to make way for a new 25-foot-high residential structure to be built by an investor from Tokyo. The home will sprawl out over the entire lot. The investor’s local agent says the man from Japan will be living in the new house about two months of each year.
The mango and plumeria trees have been cut down on another lot right behind us to make way for another mini-mansion. This neighbor is serving as his own contractor. He has been toiling for more than two years with a few laborers to build a swimming pool and a concrete entertainment area covering his entire back yard, and a looming two-story addition to be attached to the modest one-story home. His intention is to sell the property for a large sum.
And behind one of our bedrooms, on yet another lot sharing our boundary, the recent buyer of the property has hired a contractor from California and mainland workers to add a second floor to his one-story wooden house. It will not loom as large over us as the other two projects, yet almost wall-to-wall tall houses make me feel hemmed in.
Full-time neighbors once inhabited the houses in our neighborhood, people we knew, people we invited over for Christmas Day lunch. Now many of their properties have been transformed from residences into financial instruments or vacation homes inhabited by strangers.
It is difficult to fault anyone who expands their house to take in family members who are unable to afford Hawaii’s high rents and home purchase prices, but these bloated buildings are about making or parking money.
The imposing new structures are already cutting off sun and refreshing breezes to our house. When they are finished, we live in their shadows. And at night, our house will take in artificial light from their windows. I expect we will be able to hear the new neighbors when they converse and have to listen to their phones when they ring.
Oahu’s land use ordinance for the last 30 years has called for a 10-foot setback from the front of residential properties, and only a 5-foot setback on the sides and back of a property.
That allows a homeowner to pretty much cover a residential lot with a structure.
It’s why you see homes so tightly squeezed together all over suburban Oahu. In some subdivisions, house roofs seem to touch each other.
And never mind about protecting views. The land use ordinance allows people to build up right in front of each other. Residential views here are not protected. That’s unless you live in an area with private covenants.
Curtis Lum, spokesman for the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting, said he doesn’t know of anyone fighting to change the zoning laws to guarantee view planes or require more space between residential properties.
I am certain other people do not like being hemmed in by their neighbors. But if Lum is right, nobody is raising hell about it.
Real estate agents call what I consider to be overbuilding “maximizing the value of a property.”
Honolulu architect John Black says people are building what he calls “monster houses” not just in Hawaii but also all over the country.
“It’s a new way of building,” says Black. “You build right up to the lot line and as high as you can. The feeling is the bigger the better.”
Black says in Hermosa Beach, California, where he’s working on a project, the building setback around a property is only 3 feet.
Black says the idea of air-conditioned “monster houses” on Oahu lots where all the vegetation has been purged seems particularly sad. In Hawaii, life’s pleasure should be to sit outside in a lush garden to enjoy the sun and the natural trade winds.
Cramming big houses onto every inch of available space is happening not just on small residential lots but also on big properties.
Alexander & Baldwin is currently seeking permission to build three large two-story buildings on a 1.3-acre oceanfront lot at 4607 Kahala Ave. The buildings will offer a total of 30,000 square feet of living space in six duplex luxury dwellings. Prices for each unit are expected to range from $6 million to $12 million.
This is a big change from Kahala of 60 years ago. The house I grew up in at 4523 Kahala Ave. was an old wooden beach house on an acre of land dominated by a large banyan tree, masses of ornamental plants and a sweeping lawn out to the sea. The property was covered by greenery, not house.
Lance Parker, A&B Properties president, says in an emailed statement about the A&B’s plan to build a six-unit condominium on one residential lot: “Kahala has gone through many changes throughout its history — from an area known for cattle and pig farms to the premier oceanfront community it is today. We are committed to enhancing the character of the Kahala community, and thoughtfully considered the design of the project while complying with City zoning regulations. Tasteful multi‐unit homes already exist in the neighborhood, and do not appear to contribute to an overly dense coastline.”
Kahala beachside resident Lucinda Pyles says this is absolutely untrue. “There is nothing out there in the neighborhood now there similar to this. It is a density that does not exist in Kahala.”
Pyles and the nonprofit Friends of Kahala are suing A&B to stop the project. They contend that A&B failed to consider its “cumulative impact” on Kahala’s environment and surrounding neighborhoods.
The lawsuit claims that allowing the six luxury condos on a formerly single-family Kahala lot will encourage similar multi-family condominiums in other single-family neighborhoods.
A&B will certainly maximize its profit if this project is allowed to proceed.
My neighbor, Tom Markson, a software engineer, has come up with his own solution to help stem some of the residential lot overdevelopment in our own Kulamanu Place neighborhood.
When Markson heard a builder was planning to buy and tear down a small wooden cottage on the street and replace in with a mini-mansion featuring a six-car garage, Markson bought the house, with plans then to replace it with an architect-designed smaller house more in character with the neighborhood.
Then, when a small 1941 house designed by architect Valdimir Ossipoff came up for sale on our street, Markson bought that house too, with the goal of protecting his own house next door as well as preserving an architectural treasure.
“It’s a stunner of a house,” he says. “It’s the keystone house for our whole neighborhood. It would have been such a shame if someone bought it and replaced it with a huge big-ass house going out to the boundaries of the lot.”
Markson says he is saddened by what he calls “the uglification” of many Honolulu neighborhoods. He now owns three houses on our street. He says it cost him $3.5 million to buy the two houses to halt future McMansion building.
He thinks the building code should be changed to prevent the increasing density in Honolulu neighborhoods.
“It’s very sad,” Markson says. “It’s like holy mackerel. Houses here are being built so tightly packed together.”
Not all of us have Markson’s financial wherewithal to prevent real estate speculators from overbuilding properties, but I feel less powerless when I see someone like him use his wealth to retain the beauty of what’s left of a once-modest beach neighborhood.
Architect John Black thinks the only hope to stop residential lot mini-mansions would be a backlash.
Black says it will take a change of attitude that puts less value on “monster houses” and more value on smaller houses that people can easily maintain.
Neighborhoods around us are in flux. It is impossible to predict what will happen next. I just wish someone; anyone would step in and say, “Stop. Enough already!”