A proposed high-rise condominium tower could bring a lot of firsts to the Ala Moana neighborhood.

ProsPac Tower would be the first 400-foot building along Keeaumoku Street. It’d be the first project built with a transit-oriented development special permit that includes affordable rental units in the same structure as its market-rate condominiums.

And, according to the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting, it would be the first mixed-income building with a separate entrance for low-income residents.

The controversial architectural feature has been called a “poor door” by critics elsewhere.

An artist’s rendering of the ProsPac Tower, which would include a separate entrance for its lower-income residents. City and County of Honolulu

Seventy-eight of the building’s 429 units would be considered affordable to people earning 80 percent or less of area median income ($58,600 for an individual).

In exchange for the affordable units and other community benefits, the developer is seeking a special permit granted to projects near planned rail stations that would allow the building to exceed the neighborhood’s height limit by 150 feet and nearly quadruple the allowed density, among other zoning exemptions.

Daniel Simonich, the building’s assistant project manager, said separating lower-income tenants from condo owners is necessary because the renters will pay lower maintenance fees, have a separate association and their units will be managed by a different company.

“We really felt it was best to clearly separate those groups so that we can manage the groups,” Simonich said. “We’re trying to accommodate a wide range of users.”

“The renters won’t have to face the burden of maintaining all those amenities because they will be separated.” — Daniel Simonich, ProsPac Tower

The accommodations afforded each group of residents vary as widely as the income gap between them. Renters won’t have access to certain amenities, including a dog park, a pool, cabanas and a barbecue area.

“The renters won’t have to face the burden of maintaining all those amenities because they will be separated,” Simonich said.

He added that the entrance and lobby to the affordable units would be well designed. ProsPac Tower would include two separate elevators dedicated to accessing affordable units, which Simonich said will be more convenient for the tenants than having them share elevators with the condo owners.

He also said the neighborhood itself should be considered an amenity for all the residents.

To Victor Geminiani, co-executive director of the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, creating a separate entrance for low-income residents telegraphs inferiority.

“It segregates people in a very clear way,” Geminiani said. “It runs contrary to Hawaii’s values and I think American values.”

Tom Dinell, a professor of urban planning at the University of Hawaii, said Simonich is a good planner, but disagreed with the proposal to create a separate entrance.

“We’re not trying to stigmatize the people who qualify for affordable units,” Dinell said. “Affordable units and market units should be identical from the outside, including the entrance way.”

City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, who represents the Ala Moana neighborhood, said a separate entrance and access to amenities should directly correspond to the reduced maintenance fee.

“If they make it look like it’s a whole (different) building then I don’t see anything wrong with it,” Kobayashi said. “You don’t want people to feel like they’re lesser.”

Mainland Controversies

A Manhattan high rise with affordable units sparked controversy four years ago when the city approved the developer’s proposal to include a separate entrance for low-income tenants.

“‘Poor door’ tenants of luxury tower reveal the financial apartheid within,” read the headline of a New York Post article after the tower opened.

To mainland critics, separate entrances are a modern symbol of income inequality reminiscent of Jim Crow segregation in the South or Dickensian class disparities between British aristocracy and the hoi polloi.

“There could soon be a version of ‘Downton Abbey’ right here on the Upper West Side!” wrote the West Side Rag, a New York City publication, in an article comparing the Manhattan development to a British television show about aristocrats and their domestic servants in early 20th-century Britain.

The 78 affordable units in ProsPac Tower are concentrated near the bottom of the building, near the parking lot. City and County of Honolulu

In 2015, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio prohibited developers who receive certain tax breaks to build high rises with affordable units from including separate entrances for lower-income residents.   

Honolulu has no such provision. Guidelines for transit-oriented development permits are vague about what kind of affordable housing developers are required to build.

The Honolulu City Council has approved two special TOD permits so far, but neither of those projects will include affordable units in their extra-tall towers.

The developer of Manaolana condo-hotel, the first project to receive a special TOD permit, provided a $2.5 million payment to the city’s affordable housing fund instead of building affordable units.

The council awarded the same developer a second permit. Rather than including affordable units in that building, Manaolana offered “air rights” to nonprofit developer EAH Housing to build 78 affordable units atop the Walgreen’s parking deck next to the hotel. EAH Housing must apply for public funds to build the units.

The Department of Planning and Permitting reviews development projects that seek special TOD permits and recommends changes (the City Council has the power to actually grant the permits). The department hasn’t taken a position on the idea of a separate entrance in ProsPac Tower.

In emailed comments, DPP Acting Director Kathy Sokugawa noted the separate entrance would provide lower-income tenants quicker access to a planned rail station and to the building’s plaza than the entrance for residents of market-rate units.

Targeting Young Professionals

Cities across the country require developers to include affordable units in their buildings. In exchange, local governments sometimes wave zoning requirements, allowing developers to build taller and more densely to produce with more units than they would otherwise be able to.

The strategy, called inclusionary zoning, is supposed to create economically diverse communities and reduce the concentration of poverty.

Research shows the value of mixed-income communities, but the best way to mix affordable units with market-rate ones is less clear.

The idea of economically segregated housing under the same roof raises some legitimately thorny issues around how and where we design affordable housing,” Washington Post reporter Emily Badger wrote.

“Affordable units and market units should be identical from the outside, including the entrance way.” — Tom Dinell, UH professor of planning

Washington, D.C.’s zoning code generally requires those developing mixed-income housing to spread units around the building, but allows exceptions to that rule.

ProsPac’s rental units would be concentrated on the building’s first few floors near the parking lot.

William Chen, the assistant director of ProsPac Development, said the affordable units, most of which would be studios with 300 to 400 square feet of space, are intended to offer young professionals a place to live while saving money to buy their own house or condo.

Kobayashi said it’s important that the neighborhood remain accessible to locals.

“(Kakaako) was supposed to be for working residents but it didn’t turn out that way,” she said. “I hope the Ala Moana area doesn’t become just for rich people.”

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