When Kalihi resident Ashley Galacgac sat down at the recent Kapalama Canal Improvement Plan meeting, she was glad to find a teacher from nearby Kapalama Elementary School next to her.
But everyone else at her particular round table seemed to be from architecture firms or consulting groups. She found the format of breaking into small groups and engaging in regimented activities more intimidating than inviting.
The meeting’s stated objective was to collect community feedback. But Galacgac felt neither she nor the teacher next to her got the chance to share their thoughts on the redevelopment project.
“If they say this is a reflection of what the community wants, it’s not the community,” Galacgac said.
Some attendees at a recent meeting to discuss the future of the Oahu Community Correctional Center voiced similar concerns. Again, they had to provide feedback in small groups rather than one large discussion.
“They should have had an open discussion for everyone to hear what everyone else had to say before they went into small discussions,” state Sen. Will Espero of Ewa said after the OCCC meeting that he attended. “That way everyone could hear what everyone else had to say, so they could ask questions.”
The plans to relocate OCCC and the redevelopment of Kapalama Canal are just two of several government-led, large-scale projects that will drastically change Kalihi. Others include the planned construction of four rail stations through the area and the redevelopment of Mayor Wright Homes, an almost 15-acre public housing complex.
In a $75,000 contract, the city tasked WCIT with completing the environmental impact statement and creating a master plan for the canal and surrounding area.
WCIT is also in charge of developing the master plan for Kakaako Makai in collaboration with PBR Hawaii, DTL, and the Edith Kanaka’ole Foundation. Among other projects, the firm is developing Waiea at Ward Village, a 36-story Kakaako luxury residential tower.
At the meeting on Sept. 29, Kalihi state Rep. Romy Cachola didn’t wait to break down into small groups. He interrupted the mayor to ask how the city would pay for the project.
“No rail money is going to this project,” Mayor Kirk Caldwell responded. “This is money coming from the sewer fund to rebuild the sewer system, it’s coming form other operating funds and CIP (Capital Improvement Plan funds).”
Attendees were then separated into groups of about eight people per round table. Each had a facilitator who led group discussions and activities, and a map to mark what they wanted to see in and around the canal.
These small group activities provide the greatest opportunity for discussion, said Harrison Rue, community building and transit-oriented development administrator for the city, in a later interview.
“People sitting around talking story, usually that provides good discussion and people to comment in multiple ways,” said Rue.
Using post-it notes, attendees were invited to prioritize aspects of the canal’s development. Options included “improved infrastructure,” “sense of place,” “development catalyst,” and “enhanced diversity.”
The terms were vague, although meeting host Robert Iopa of WCIT Architecture defined each.
“Enhanced diversity,” he said, meant “a place that would be welcoming to all; multigenerational, multiethnic, mixed use development, retail, mom and pop, housing choices, cultural and natural resources, all would be a part of this community, all in and around the process of resorting the canal.”
The “sense of place” option, he said, referred to “beautification, art, science, things of that nature that would express a quality in sense of place.”
Galacgac was concerned the language might prevent some community members from joining the discussions.
“These are terms that are not colloquial,” Galacgac said. “Do people talk like this?”
Amanda Ybanez, vice-chair of the Kalihi-Palama Neighborhood Board, felt the emphasis on activities restricted discussion.
“I want organic conversations,” Ybanez said. “Not these cookie-cutter ideas and concepts, prefabricated ideas with agendas attached.”
Even though the meeting began with a presentation on the history of Kalihi, Ybanez felt the group activities that followed did not reflect the cultural values expressed in that presentation.
“It looks like nobody gives a damn about that spot,” Ybanez said referring to Loi Kalo Park in Kaihi, a spot on the map that didn’t get much attention during the meeting. “Places that have cultural significance aren’t important to them.”
Not everyone was put off by the meeting’s structure.
Keith Chow, a former commercial real estate agent, appreciated the opportunity to see the master plan.
“It’s good to know the city master plan for whatever you’re selling or whatever you’re developing,” he said after the meeting. “It’s good to know your product.”
Matthew Gonser, a faculty member in community planning and design at the University of Hawaii Sea Grant College Program, praised the city after the meeting for its community engagement efforts. Before becoming the city’s TOD administrator, Rue worked with the Sea Grant’s Smart Growth Workshop.
“The city itself has really progressed tremendously in its community process, community meetings in the last handful of years,” Gonser said. “The resources were really phenomenal.”
On Sept. 28, the night before the Kapalama Canal meeting, the state Department of Public Safety held an environmental impact statement scoping meeting entitled “The Future of Oahu Community Correctional Center.” Again, facilitators broke attendees into groups.
The public scoping meeting was not required by law, but the Department of Public Safety stated its “commitment to public outreach and engagement” in a September newsletter.
The largest point of contention involved a slide titled, “What this meeting is NOT about.” The list included “site selection,” “a master plan,” “design and construction” and “facility operation.”
That covered everything Kalihi resident Theresa Cummings came to talk about. Her son is incarcerated at Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona because the state doesn’t have enough space in its own facilities.
“I kind of got pissed off and walked out,” Cummings said in a later interview. “(The meeting) was about getting people’s signature so they could show they’re getting input from the community.”
Before walking out, Cummings asked meeting facilitators to take her name off the list of attendees.
Asked later about the slide and the instructions to limit discussion topics, Toni Schwartz, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety, said she didn’t know why the slide was there.
“We clarified verbally that all ideas are welcome, we clarified that that slide is not what we are going by,” Schwartz said.
Even so, Espero felt things could have been handled better.
“You want to hear what’s on people’s mind, period, regarding this process,” he said.
Espero said meeting coordinators should have started with 10 to 15 minutes when community members could take the floor to briefly express their concerns in front of the entire group.
Kat Brady of the Community Alliance on Prisons agreed that a format for large group discussion was needed, and in fact she stood up during the meeting to make that point.
“Why don’t they just let people talk?” she asked in a later interview. “They’re so afraid. They’re so afraid of the community.”
Espero, Cummings and Brady also felt that there were not enough Kalihi residents at the meeting.
“The meeting could have been better publicized,” Espero said. “There were a few residents, but not a whole lot.”
In the audience he saw consultants and representatives from the departments of Public Safety and Accounting and General Services.
Schwartz said about 100 people attended the meeting and “just about everybody” there was a community member.
Cummings had a different take.
“A lot of them looked more like business people,” she said. She estimated about 60 people attended, and about 10 were Kalihi residents.
The projects to redevelop Kalihi are in their preliminary stages, but some community members said they are ready to provide more feedback than the meeting formats allowed.
“It’s such an important envisioning process,” Galacgac said of the Kapalama Canal meeting. “We have to engage, we need more community members present. But also be prepared to see through all the manipulation.”
Civil Beat reporter Rui Kaneya contributed to this report.