The community between Moanalua and Chinatown is one of the last predominantly working class areas in central Oahu and is characterized by its large immigrant presence, public housing community and manufacturing economy.
Often viewed negatively by neighboring areas because of its socioeconomic status — 13.4 percent of residents are at or below the poverty line, compared to 11.2 percent for the state — Kalihi is experiencing a flood of changes.
In the past year, Farrington High School opened its new track and football stadium, plans were set in motion for the redevelopment of the Mayor Wright public housing project and the Dillingham Department of Motor Vehicles began relocating from Dillingham Boulevard to the Diamond Head side of Kalihi as part of the Kapalama Hale project.
Now a state report has been released that envisions future development in the district focusing on state-owned land in Kalihi between Middle Street and Iwilei, including the 16 acres that the Oahu Community Correctional Center currently sits on.
But some people fear that any redevelopment that isn’t focused on affordable housing and commercial space could drive current residents and businesses out of the area, a scenario that has unfolded as condominium towers have come to dominate nearby Kakaako.
The plan mostly addresses what could happen after the expected relocation of OCCC out of Kalihi, stating that:
“The site’s transformation can serve as a catalyst for large-scale redevelopment in the Kalihi neighborhood. By examining the OCCC site’s potential to transform surrounding social, physical, and economic conditions, the vision aims to catalyze a preferred future for Kalihi in the 21st Century.”
“I think these are very exciting times for Kalihi,” said Sen. Glenn Wakai, whose district includes Kalihi, Mapunapuna and the airport area. “You can see that the flow is going into the Kalihi area so you get the sense that businesses are moving in and the schools are getting a much-needed face-lift.”
For some residents and existing businesses, the plan left many questions unanswered, one of the largest being, who or what is going to be pushed if redevelopment occurs.
An excerpt from section 3.4 of the plan highlights Kalihi’s distinct industrial presence and states, “Whether its industrial character ought to be preserved will be an important consideration moving forward, as the needs of most industrial spaces may be at odds with the proposed mixed-use, transit-oriented development.”
Jeffrey Acido, community education and civic engagement manager at Kokua Kalihi Valley, a nonprofit community health center, says that the displacement of local residents and businesses is inevitable.
“When you look under (section 4.2 of the plan), they’ll say our community members were concerned about displacement and that’s something that we have to think about in the future,” said Acido. “Ah hello, that’s something you gotta think about now.”
Kakaako has become known for its condominium towers courtesy of a special redevelopment district. Now it comes in for criticism for its lack of affordable housing, as well as the effect redevelopment has had on its smaller businesses and car repair shops.
“I’m not surprised if (they moved to) Kalihi or have closed up shop,” said state Rep. Romy M. Cachola, whose district includes the Kalihi Kai area.
Ukulele Factory Moves On
An early example of the effect that Kalihi’s changes are having on existing businesses can be found at 1234 Kona St., where KoAloha Ukulele is still adjusting to its new digs — in Kakaako.
In early July, the popular ukulele company shut its factory doors in central Kalihi.
“For us it was time to move on from Kalihi,” said Brian Benavente, vice president of KoAloha Ukulele. “Where we were physically located, the plans of where the rail was going to run would definitely have affected us,” Benavente said.
Three Honolulu rail stations are planned for the area at Middle Street, Kapalama and Kalihi.
The popular ukulele manufacturer’s old location was a warehouse on Kohou Street across from the Kapalama Canal, where plans are in place to transform the notoriously unsanitary waterway into a linear park, complete with paved paths along the water and a pedestrian bridge.
Some lawmakers, like Wakai, believe that while the vision report is a step in the right direction, its proposals don’t go far enough in envisioning Kalihi’s future.
“If we just have public housing there, that’s not going to be a catalyst for a lot of other dynamic change in the area,” said Wakai whose district includes Kalihi, Mapunapuna and the airport. “For example, why not put in a Disney theater?”
Wakai said that while he agrees there is a need for affordable housing, dedicating OCCC’s entire 16-acre site to it isn’t what’s best for the community. Instead, he said, something “architecturally magnificent” is more apt to kickstart redevelopment.
“In Hawaii we don’t have an Eiffel tower, we don’t have a Sydney Opera House,” Wakai said. “This is an opportunity to create something that is man-made and in the order of the Great Wall of China.”
This line of thinking reflects a section of the report that says Hawaii Gov. David Ige is looking for a “renaissance” in Kalihi.
Island Sign Services, a sign manufacturer, relocated to Kalihi from Kakaako eight years ago because of rising rent prices.
Billy Ng, a manager who has worked with the company for 25 years, said rent at the space in Kakaako doubled over time.
Wakai said that to avoid situations like Island Sign Services having to relocate, the state could provide financial incentives to landowners to keep manufacturing in Kalihi and prevent an outcome that mirrors Kakaako.
The plan’s vision statement states that “Mom and Pop stores would thrive and gentrification would be mitigated,” but there aren’t any details explaining how this would be done.
Cachola said the government can only have so much control over how an area evolves, especially when dealing with private land owners.
“No one knows what’s going to happen in the future,” Cachola said.
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