On the corner of South Beretania Street and the Pali Highway lies a triangular piece of land with pathways between trees, small patches of grass and shrubs and tan, hexagon-shaped concrete planters.
It looks inviting when empty, but Kamalii Mini Park isn’t a place where neighbors often gather.
In fact, some residents of the adjacent Kukui Plaza, a condominium complex with more than 900 units spread across two towers, won’t walk through it because they fear the people who regularly hang out there.
Community members say Kamalii Park has become a place where drug use and dealing occur at all hours. They say they find needles and condoms on the ground and that people – some of them homeless – use the park as a place to relieve themselves and to camp overnight.
The Honolulu Police Department says those concerns aren’t going unnoticed. From July to September, officers made 22 drug and narcotic arrests and 12 misdemeanor arrests, in addition to issuing 28 citations for violations of park rules, like camping out and sticking around past closure hours, said Sgt. Scott Tamasaka.
Alvin Au has served on the Downtown/Chinatown Neighborhood Board for 25 years. He said crime comes and goes in the .68-acre park that the city acquired in 1967.
Over the years, people have tried to improve Kamalii Park with cleanups and other projects – but none have been successful in the long term. It’s currently closed for maintenance, but is scheduled to reopen in December.
About 25 Kukui Plaza residents gathered on a recent Friday evening in the complex’s Diamond Head Tower conference room to discuss their concerns about the park with Civil Beat. It was a mix of owners and renters.
Joyce Allen, 56, has lived in Kukui Plaza since 1992 and said she was never able to take her daughters, who are now in their 20s, to the park to learn how to ride a bike or play ball when they were growing up.
Erik Abe, 49, said his wife and daughter use their car to go to Safeway the next block over because “it’s too scary to walk across the street.”
He has lived in the complex for 10 years and walks to work at the Capitol. He normally tries to avoid the park, but because he sometimes comes home at 2 or 3 a.m., he’ll walk through it to shave a few minutes from his commute.
He sees people sleeping there and at the adjacent bus stop with their belongings nearby. Sometimes, he’ll see people linger by the walls of the concrete planters.
“It’s kind of a spooky area to kind of walk around in the dark,” he said.
At other times in the park, he’ll see people twitching, exhibiting behavior typically associated with drug use. Sometimes in the mornings, he’ll see small groups of people passing backpacks around.
Dolores Mollring, 80, has lived at Kukui Plaza since it opened in 1976 and has been on the neighborhood board since 1996. She’s also in charge of a weekly citizens patrol, which began in the early 1990s.
“These people in this building here, they’re so sick of it,” Mollring said. “They look out of their window and there it is right in their face.”
She said some residents have been taking photos of the park from the windows of their residences to give to the police.
Catching people in the act of dealing drugs is difficult, Tamasaka said, because just seeing two people exchange money and a container isn’t enough to make an arrest.
“You have to have the elements to establish that this person is trading money for drugs. Without establishing the facts, we can’t just arrest the guy for what we think could be dealing drugs,” he said.
Identifying drug use is simpler because the park is so open that it’s easy to spot someone injecting a substance or smoking.
Tamasaka said the majority of the people who frequent the park are homeless, but police can’t just kick them out for sitting there if they’re not violating a law.
“I know a lot of people say, ‘Well, police are not doing their job.’ But we have to follow our laws and regulations. … We can’t just go and arrest people,” he said.
Kamalii Park, like others in HPD’s District 1, which encompasses central Honolulu, is checked daily by the district’s patrol and bicycle units as well as 4th watch – a group of young officers on foot. A community policing team also works with the Institute for Human Services to monitor the parks and offer help to the homeless.
Calls or complaints from the community can increase how often officers visit a particular park, Tamasaka said, adding that from June to September, HPD received 81 calls for service at Kamalii Park.
Usually the callers want to remain anonymous, and when officers arrive at the park they often don’t see the alleged illegal activity. Tamasaka said people in the park stop what they’re doing if they see a blue light or a uniformed officer, so it would help if community members could meet officers and help them locate perpetrators.
“Not just making anonymous calls, but we actually need people to step up from the community and help us take back their community,” he said.
Two blocks away from Kamalii Park is Central Middle School.
Principal Anne Marie Murphy said there haven’t been any issues with drugs on school grounds, but she encourages her staff and parents to be vigilant to make sure no one comes on campus who is not supposed to.
Still, she said the school stays in touch with nearby organizations, including Nuuanu YMCA, the Pacific Club and St. Andrew’s Priory School, regarding security concerns.
The Honolulu Fire Department has a station located in front of Kamalii Park, but Capt. David Jenkins said in an email that the department would not comment on activities in the park.
Kamalii Park’s problems are not unique, Tamasaka said. Within four blocks are Smith-Beretania and Aala parks, which are also common sources of complaints.
City Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga said she received more than 50 complaints about homelessness or illegal activities in various parks in her district, which includes Downtown-Chinatown, Iwilei and Kakaako.
The complaints came in after her newsletter – which asked constituents what they were most concerned about in Honolulu and in her district – was distributed in June. She said about 10 were from Kukui Plaza residents who had seen illegal drug activities at Kamalii Park.
Residents on the other side of the park have the same concerns, according to Marni Ramirez, general manager of Capitol Place, a condominium complex with almost 400 units.
She said residents are fearful and angry about the park, especially because the drug use is so blatant.
“They’re so scared they’re going to get attacked or they’re going to do something dangerous that they choose to leave them alone versus push them out,” Ramirez said.
While crime in the park is a problem, it’s not enough to push residents away, especially when they have the convenience of living downtown where they have no need for a car and have plenty of places to eat, shop and recreate nearby.
“I could move away, but I like what urban living is like, except for the crime, and I want to fight back,” said Doug Pyle, 56, a resident of Kukui Plaza since 1989.
In order to take the park back, something useful has to be put there, said Lynne Matusow, who served on the neighborhood board from 1988 to 2015.
Sam Moku, vice president for university relations for Hawaii Pacific University, said at the Oct. 5 neighborhood board meeting that he’s talked with the city parks department about getting students involved in adopting the park. But that was about a year ago, and the problems have increased since then, he said.
Last year, Fukunaga solicited feedback from nearby residents to see if they’d support turning the area into a fenced dog park. She said the parks department and Honolulu Fire Department personnel were generally supportive, but some condo associations were not.
In 2013, Pacxa, an information technology service provider, organized a cleanup with 60 volunteers. The group picked up trash and washed and repainted the concrete planters and walls, said Melanie Kim, the company’s marketing director.
Also that year, a group affiliated with the sustainability organization Transition Oahu proposed the creation of a food forest – a collection of food-bearing trees and shrubs – at Kamalii Park, which was chosen for its visibility along the Pali Highway, said David Atcheson. He started a website for Friends of Kamalii Park.
The project received support from then-City Councilwoman Tulsi Gabbard, but the City Council never funded it, Fukunaga said.
Other suggestions have included getting rid of it, turning it into a community garden and changing the layout.
Department of Parks and Recreation spokesman Nathan Serota said in an email that the department would need to review any proposal that would change a park’s use before it would make any recommendations or take action. There are no current plans for changes at Kamalii Park, he said.
Like Kamalii, nearby Kamamalu Park on Queen Emma Street has been plagued by illicit activities and homelessness, said Nuuanu YMCA Executive Director Randall Ikeda.
But some of the community efforts to combat crime in Kamamalu Park could provide some guidance for people concerned about Kamalii.
Community groups have been holding regular cleanups in the park.
The Pacific Club adopted a segment of Kamamalu Park that sits across from its Queen Emma Street location – close to the restroom facilities. A group of four to 10 volunteers clean that segment each month by mowing and trimming the grass and shrubs and picking up garbage, said General Manager John Bethe.
Four times a year, the Nuuanu YMCA supplements this work by cleaning the rest of the park with the assistance of some high school Key Club members. Depending on how many clubs join in, there could be 30-80 volunteers, Ikeda said.
These cleanups started about two years ago, and at the time, the two organizations also formed a Business Security Watch with the two nearby schools, churches, a condominium complex and another nonprofit. That group evolved into the Kamamalu Park Community Group.
Ikeda says the efforts have helped to manage the safety of the park, though the goal is to restore it to its original purpose of being a place for the public to use.
They have a ways to go.
The park sits on 5.27 acres and was acquired by the city in 1962. Over the past year, the parks department has received 11 complaints, mostly about non-permitted campers, Serota said.
It recently reopened after being closed for the parks department to improve the field, trim trees, repair irrigation systems and remove the play apparatus. The work resulted in some homeless people moving to the other side of a fence alongside H-1 on the park’s mauka border.
Kimo Carvalho, director of community relations for the Institute for Human Services, said in an email that the park’s homeless population generally has substance abuse problems, including opiate addiction.
The population consisted of eight to 10 tents, with two couples but mostly individuals. Prostitution, drug dealing and assaults were problems in and around the restroom.
HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu, said in an email that from July until Nov. 4, HPD had made seven arrests in the park for offenses like warrants and drugs and 49 citations for violating park hours and having tents and shopping carts in the park.
The key to keeping a park free of crime and usable by the public is to be consistent with activities like park cleanups and community policing, said Gale Braceros, program director for Weed and Seed, a program formerly run by the federal Department of Justice that was later adopted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Weed and Seed has been acting as an adviser to these groups, Braceros said, connecting them to HPD’s community policing team and providing guidance on strategies like having a business patrol watch or a citizens patrol group.
Keeping these efforts going is the biggest challenge, she said.
“A lot of times they’re really full force, they do it, and when they see – and it’s very natural – when they feel like things calmed down, they don’t see any homeless or crime going on in the area, they tend to kind of slow down in their walks or the cleanup and all that,” Braceros said.