When Honolulu City Councilman Brandon Elefante talks with students, he asks them how they got to school. Most say they were dropped off by car.
“I tell them, ‘Watch, in the next decade, you’ll see that change,’” he said, predicting more students will get to school on foot, bike or bus.
Standing in Aiea’s Neal S. Blaisdell Park, Elefante described his vision for District 8, which stretches from Waipahu to Pearl City and lower Aiea and will host five of 21 stations along the city’s elevated rail line.
Rail pillars lined Kamehameha Highway in front of him. The city is rezoning land around the stations and Elefante hopes the resulting development will transform strip malls, industrial warehouses and walk-up apartment buildings into a vibrant mix of businesses stacked with affordable housing.
“It’s sort of like a once-in-a-blue-moon, once-in-a-lifetime thing where you have rail coming online,” said Elefante, the council’s youngest member at 32.
His opponent in the Nov. 6 general election, Kelly Kitashima, expresses more concern for the day-to-day problems facing district residents. Development may come, but for now the rail line just offers shade for commuters driving beneath it along Farrington and Kamehameha highways. Construction has torn up the road, caused delays and made it harder to access some businesses.
On a tour of Pearl City, Kitashima looked up at Flamingo Express, a plate lunch restaurant. The owners closed their popular diner along Kamehameha Highway, Flamingo Restaurant, after business slowed as a result of rail construction, she said.
“What could the city have done to throw them a bone?” she said.
Kitashima pulled up to a crosswalk near Waiau Elementary School. It took more than a decade to make the crosswalk safer with brighter streetlights and other improvements, she said. Last month, the city paid $2 million to settle a lawsuit brought by a woman who was hit by a car at the intersection and blamed poor road conditions, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.
“This is just stuff that makes my blood boil,” Kitashima said. “How can we not get things right?”
Reining in spending would be one of Kitashima’s priorities if elected, especially on the over-budget rail project. After the Legislature voted last year to increase the statewide hotel room tax to bail out the project, Kitashima decided to quit her job as the director of sales at the Kahala Hotel and Resort to run for the City Council.
“Did rail really even need a bailout?” she said. “As taxpayers and now industries, we’re now an open checkbook.”
Elefante fondly recalls one of his first events as a newly elected councilman four years ago; a community meeting in Waipahu to discuss the area’s transit-oriented development plan. It created a special district around two rail stations in Waipahu by rezoning areas, in some cases from low-density residential to medium-density apartment, business or industrial mixed use.
“You won’t see the immediate impact overnight,” Elefante said. “It takes years.”’
The urban planning projects Elefante is undertaking might be difficult for some of his constituents to embrace.
A 2013 survey commissioned by the city’s planning department of 741 Aiea and Pearl City residents who live close to planned rail stations found that 65 percent preferred to live in single-family homes and use cars as their primary mode of transportation. A 2012 survey of Waipahu residents near rail stops had similar results.
The need for affordable housing is especially pronounced in Waipahu, where multigenerational families crowd into low-rise apartments in the neighborhoods makai of Farrington Highway, said Barbara Tom, Founder of the Waipahu Safe Haven Immigrant Resource Center located in what locals call the “pupu area.”
Guiding development will be the area council member’s challenge over the next few decades, said Waipahu Neighborhood Board member Richard Oshiro.
“It’s ripe for redevelopment, we just want to make sure we get the right kind of development,” he said.
The City Council is nonpartisan, but it’s easy to see Elefante and Kitashima at different ends of Honolulu’s political spectrum.
Elefante is an ally of Mayor Kirk Caldwell and a staunch rail supporter. The Sierra Club of Hawaii endorsed him and supported his effort last year to close a loophole in the city’s ban on plastic bags.
Kitashima has been endorsed by former Republican Congressman Charles Djou, who ran against Caldwell in the 2016 mayoral race.
Kitashima said she is a political outsider with allegiance to neither of the quibbling factions that form a 5-4 split on the nine-member council. Djou’s endorsements, though, have been for the candidates who side with Council Chair Ernie Martin, Caldwell’s chief rival.
She wants to see the city’s ban on sitting and lying on sidewalks applied islandwide in an effort to clear sidewalks of homeless people and their belongings. Elefante has been the only council member to consistently vote against expansions of the sit-lie ban over the last four years.
Elefante also has greater name recognition. He has frequented neighborhood board meetings in his district for at least the last eight years, first as a council aide to Breene Harimoto, who is now a state senator, and then as a councilman himself.
Kitashima began attending board meetings regularly after she became a candidate. She keeps a low profile at them, which might not work to her advantage.
“It’s hard to judge somebody if you don’t know much about them,” said Pearl City Neighborhood Board Chair Larry Veray.
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