When Whole Foods Market, Inc. was planning fits first Hawaii store in what’s now Ward Village in 2006, the company got some bad news: The proposed site also was the location of a Native Hawaiian burial ground.
“This is not something we’ve ever had to deal with before, and we’re just trying to figure out what the right thing to do is,” a Whole Foods spokeswoman told The Honolulu Star-Bulletin at the time.
Fast-forward 12 years, and Whole Foods is making a second run at Kakaako. And again, bones — iwi kupuna — have been found at the new site on the ground floor of developer Howard Hughes Corp.’s tony Aeo condominium project.
But this time the project has moved forward without a hiccup.
And it’s not a lucky fluke.
“The (developer’s) leadership team has never needed any convincing as to why they have to care for burials,” said Kumu Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, a Hawaiian activist who is also chair of the O’ahu Island Burial Council, which manages Native Hawaiian burial sites and ancestral remains.
The way Howard Hughes has handled sensitive iwi discoveries to the satisfaction of the parties involved seems emblematic of its approach to community outreach.
“Their responsiveness regarding iwi issues is akin to none,” said Wong-Kalu, who has been a cultural advisor to the company.
Headquartered in Dallas, Howard Hughes Corp. owns, manages and develops commercial, residential and mixed-use properties in 14 states in the U.S., including several master planned communities. The company is named for the film and aviation magnate who in the 1950s acquired a master planned community near Las Vegas that’s still in the company’s portfolio.
Since Howard Hughes embarked on its first Hawaii project in 2014, the company has built two condo towers and has two more in the works. All told, this first phase will bring nearly 1,400 units on line with a total price tag of more than $1.46 billion. And the company’s master plan calls for much more down the line.
Todd Apo, a former Honolulu City Council member and now vice president of community relations for Howard Hughes’ Ward Village project, said the company has tried to avoid the seemingly small gaffes that can blow up and stymie a development.
“Having sat six years at the City Council,” Apo said, “I know how some of that craziness can happen.”
One key is talking to the right people early. For instance, as Howard Hughes embarked on plans to refurbish Kewalo Basin Harbor, Apo said, the company reached out to Friends of Kewalos, an activist group that in 2006 thwarted developer Alexander & Baldwin’s plan to acquire state-owned waterfront property in Kakaako to develop a $650 million mixed-use condo project.
Friends of Kewalos has been concerned about the sale of public land and access to popular surf spots near Kewalo Basin. And with Howard Hughes borrowing about $11.6 million to invest in the harbor, Apo said the company wanted to assure Friends of Kewalos that the company wouldn’t block access to the ocean.
“We disagree at times, many times in fact,” said Friends of Kewalos president Ron Iwami.
But that’s only natural, Iwami said: The group’s mission is to care for the ocean and waterfront, and Howard Hughes’ is to develop its property. The key, Iwami said, is that the company is willing to listen.
“It’s like an open-door policy,” he said.
When Howard Hughes was planning another condo project in Aalii, Apo said, it held a community forum in the courtyard of the IBM Building where it’s headquartered and surveyed people from the community to find out what they’d want in a new project. Several of those ideas were incorporated into the building, said Tom Schnell, principal of PBR Hawaii & Associates Inc., which is working with Howard Hughes.
“They’re trying to create a community and not just do a development,” Schnell said. “A lot of developers don’t make that distinction.”
It’s not surprising that Kakaako has seen a building boom as the economy has recovered. Under a state law passed in 1976, the area is a special development district, governed by a state board, the Hawaii Community Development Authority. HCDA’s purpose is to promote development in the area to address Honolulu’s lack of affordable housing, among other things.
Whether HCDA is fulfilling that mission is a matter of frequent debate. For its part, Howard Hughes is setting aside hundreds of units at below-market rates. At Ke Kilohana, being developed at Ward Avenue and Halekauwila Street, 375 of 424 units are being sold at prices affordable for people earning an average of 120 percent of the area median income or less, Apo said. And 150 of 751 units at Aalii are being set aside as affordable housing, Apo said.
This might be enough to fulfill HCDA’s requirements, but it still seems out of reach for neighborhood workers like Michelle Domingo, an instructor at Corepower Yoga who is studying to apply for master’s programs in nursing.
“I’m here all the time,” she said, “but I can’t afford to live here.”
The HCDA isn’t the only government agency Howard Hughes has to deal with. There’s also the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, which manages the $8.17 billion rail project that will cut through the heart of Howard Hughes’ properties.
The company stands to benefit from the transit project, but in the meantime it must navigate a tricky — and occasionally rocky — relationship with rail officials over its properties that lie in the route’s path.
At HART’s Dec. 14 meeting, for example, the rail board opted to start the condemnation process against several Howard Hughes parcels even though the city’s latest appraisals for that land were outdated and negotiations for their purchase were far from over.
Mark Murakami, an attorney for Howard Hughes, argued that day that the board’s condemnation moves were premature and violated the federal land-acquisition process that HART agreed to follow.
He also told the board that Howard Hughes learned about the proposed condemnation only a couple of days before the meeting — and that the link on HART’s website to the details was broken so the company couldn’t evaluate the proposal.
“These plans have changed dynamically several times, and we have big buildings going up and operating shopping centers with impacts that need to be learned and judged,” Murakami said.
HART board members didn’t appear very sympathetic.
“We would hope that Howard Hughes, who is a very big player in Kakaako and very well-respected, would cooperate with us in this process, rather than being an impediment,” HART board member Ember Shinn told Murakami. She reminded him that Howard Hughes advertises its properties abroad as “close to rail.”
“You need to make sure that you take it back to your client the board’s firm commitment that this rail is going to be built, it is going to be built through Kakaako, and that we would hope that you would cooperate with this endeavor,” Shinn said.
After a pause, Murakami noted that HART’s own real estate plan calls for condemnation “only after all reasonable efforts” to get it by negotiations “have been exhausted.
“We have not been afforded that with only two days’ notice,” he said.
One casualty of Howard Hughes’ redevelopment is the old Ward Warehouse. The former low-rise mall between Ala Moana Boulevard and Auahi Street is being replaced with luxury condos. And that’s meant the loss of cheaper spaces for small local companies.
But at Auahi and Queen streets, Howard Hughes has built what amounts to a new-fangled version of Ward Warehouse. At lunchtime on a recent Friday, the South Shore Market was buzzing. Diners were savoring stacks of pancakes and $15 burgers at Scratch Kitchen and Meatery and eating ice cream at Lucy’s Lab Creamery.
In the market’s main arcade, next to a “living wall” of ferns and shrubs, students pored over books and sipped coffee at a long communal table. Nearby, at Mori By Art + Flea, Gadea Perez-Andujar was dropping off some brass and gold earrings to Mori’s owner, Aly Ishikuni-Sasaki.
Mori is like an artsy flea market without the dust, a retail space for dozens of local brands. In addition to jewelry from companies like Perez-Andujar’s KISIWA brand, there are T-shirts made by Trades Hawaii and pet beds by Christian Tabiolo, a local furniture maker. It’s more like a museum gift shop than mall retailer.
As Ishikuni-Sasaki describes it, following her passion to be an impresario for local creatives made her a Kakaako nomad for several years until she connected with Howard Hughes. In 2014, she opened a shop in Ward Warehouse knowing it would soon close. She moved to South Shore Market when it opened in 2016.
Although South Shore Market shares a building with corporate behemoths like Nordstrom Rack and Pier 1, Ishikuni-Sasaki said Howard Hughes’ desire to work with small entrepreneurs is sincere.
“It’s real, and that’s why so many people want to open up their shops here,” she said. “And for tourists, it’s exciting too because they get to experience the true Hawaii creative culture.”
Native Hawaiian lawyer Natasha Baldauf chronicled in a paper on iwi kupuna that Kakaako was once a thriving community with agricultural terraces, docks for foreign ships and recreation areas. King Kamehameha I, the first monarch to unite the Hawaiian islands, had a residence there. In 1853, sailors arriving on a foreign ship brought smallpox, Baldauf wrote, infecting thousands of Native Hawaiians, many of whom died and were buried in shallow graves.
Wong-Kalu, the kumu hula who is on the Oahu Island Burial Council, said she agreed to work as a cultural advisor to Howard Hughes because the company seemed sincerely willing to treat the iwi kupuna with respect.
Wong-Kalu said she understands if people criticize her for working for a developer and then serving on the burial council, but she said she recuses herself from any matters involving Howard Hughes.
To Wong-Kalu, what’s important is if the company is willing to respect the area’s history. And she says it’s doing that.
“I have very high expectations,” she said. “And so far they’ve been able to meet those cultural expectations.”