A group of five millennials, all childhood friends from Kailua, texted back and forth on their cellphones a few nights before Christmas to start a movement, which resulted this month in major Kailua landowner Alexander & Baldwin putting plans to redevelop Pali Lanes bowling center on hold — at least for now.
Evan Weber and Taylor Caster, both 26, were among those using The Action Network and petitioning at the bowling alley to collect more than 6,000 signatures. They also created a Facebook page, “Our Kailua,” the twitter account @our96734, and a presence on Instagram to rally support.
They started the movement after A&B announced plans in December to terminate the bowling alley’s lease Jan. 31, 2019, to redevelop the 1.7-acre site into an open-air, community gathering place for the Kailua Farmers’ Market, food trucks and community concerts.
Weber said the bowling alley already is the community’s gathering place.
“It is one of a handful of bowling alleys left in the state,” he said “Young kids love coming here. It is where we celebrated many of our birthday parties.
“Also, there are a lot of older people for whom it is their only exercise. It is used by school groups and children with disabilities to train for the Special Olympics. Tourists don’t come here. It is one of the few places residents can gather and do something fun with their families.”
Caster was astounded that they got so many signatures so fast. He said they realized the petition had provoked an emotional response about something deeper than the loss of the bowling alley. Residents were frustrated, saying that A&B was leaving them out of the conversation as it moved ahead again and again to make dramatic changes to their neighborhood.
“The pending loss of the bowling alley was the last straw,” Caster said.
The petition was delivered to A&B, and in a March 25 opinion piece in the Honolulu Star Advertiser, A&B president and CEO Chris Benjamin wrote, “I acknowledge we haven’t done enough to engage with the Kailua community regarding our future plans for property there.”
Benjamin wrote that A&B “went to great lengths” to meet with key community leaders four years ago when it began its plans to redevelop Kailua, “But we have not circled back with the community to show how we have been incorporating that feedback.”
He said A&B will initiate more meetings with community groups to try to find common ground.
Caster said A&B has been responsive to their group and invited the petitioners to sit down with company executives two times.
A&B spokesman Darren Pai wrote in an email to Civil Beat on Saturday: “We understand the value of social media but do not feel that any one communication medium can convey or represent the complexity of these issues or accurately capture the broad range of opinions of the community. That is why we are undertaking a comprehensive engagement process, and have indicated we will not proceed with any plans at Pali Lanes or elsewhere until we’ve done so.”
It is interesting that A&B downplays the power of social media when the on-line petition appears to be what has brought it to the table on Pali Lanes.
It was also a Manoa community social media effort that generated a confrontation after A&B announced plans to cut down seven mature monkeypod trees in the Manoa Market Place. A&B later agreed to keep the shade trees in place.
After Benjamin’s newspaper op-ed appeared, two representatives from Alexander & Baldwin, Dana Gusman and Sheila-Anne Ebert, came to the Kailua Neighborhood Board meeting April 5 and told the room packed with people concerned about the bowling alley that company’s plan to close Pali Lanes is “on pause” while it conducts a community survey and initiates more community outreach.
“It is a eye-opening and inspiring that a small group of millennials who are nostalgic about their roots and growing up in Kailua has achieved so much in such a short time frame,” said neighborhood board member Levani Lipton. “It speaks to the power of community organizing and using the technology of today. They are fighting for the soul of Kailua.”
Lipton said in the five years she has been on the board, “This is the first time Alexander & Baldwin has given us the time of day. They have never before sent representatives to our meetings. Now they say they will send someone every month. It is exciting and encouraging that the young people started this.”
Neighborhood board chairman Bill Hicks called it a positive and constructive sign.
“A&B started out with good intentions to communicate with Kailua residents but it lost its way,” Hicks said. “As the major landowner of Kailua’s downtown, it is very important for the company to start a constructive dialogue with the people whose lives are impacted by their decisions.”
A&B owns 90 percent of the retail property in downtown Kailua. It bought the commercial land from longtime landowner Kaneohe Ranch-Harold K.L. Castle Foundation in November 2013.
Since then the company has embarked on a plan to “revitalize” Kailua that’s included bringing in big mainland stores such as Whole Foods and relocating many former local shop owners to make way for other tenants.
A&B said the majority of new tenants are local.
Art Machado Jr., co-owner of Pali Lanes, still hopes A&B will negotiate a new lease of at least two years to allow it to renovate the property and stay in business. Since 2013, its lease has been month to month, with A & B waiving four months of rent to help it try to relocate.
“I have 44 school groups using it and four different Special Olympics units,” Machado said. “Young people are coming here ages 5 to 20. And many seniors, with one woman bowling here who is 97 years old.”
Machado said the bowling alley’s Hawaiian food restaurant, Hale Kealohaloha, makes 700 lunches a day for public charter schools.
Pali Lanes is one of four private league-sanctioned bowling alleys left on Oahu. The other three are Aiea Bowl, Leeward Bowl in Pearl City and Barber’s Point Bowling Center.
The mid-century building was designed by architects George “Pete” Wimberly and Howard L. Cook.
“It is the last major landmark of old Kailua we still have left,” said Weber.
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to the neighborhood board chairman as Bill Witt. His name is Bill Hicks.
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Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.