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For more than two years, the residents of the Four Paddle condominiums on Kuhio Avenue have been blinded by the light.
The first of two 38-story Ritz-Carlton towers rose in front of their apartment building in 2016 and the second was completed in October. City planners allowed the luxury mixed-use commercial and residential complex to be built with all the condo-hotel units facing the sea, an irregular configuration for Waikiki.
The back sides of the skyscrapers house an intricate system of open-air fire escapes to evacuate guests in an emergency. The four fire escapes, two on each building, are illuminated all night, shining bright LED light onto their mauka neighbors’ homes, including the Four Paddle, an older condominium building across the street.
The light is glaring. At 9:30 on one recent evening, an apartment on the 22nd floor of the Four Paddle was lit up like daytime. Residents there installed black-out curtains to give themselves enough darkness to sleep steadily.
It’s made life miserable for them — hard to sleep, hard to rest or relax — because they have lost the experience of nighttime.
“At night it’s almost like daylight in here,” said Mark Harpenau, who lives in a one-bedroom apartment in the 250-unit Four Paddle building.
Exposure to intense lighting at night is not just a nuisance but also a health concern, according to scientists.
“Bright light shining into windows can disrupt the circadian system,” said Laura Fonken, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has studied the negative effects of nighttime light.
In an email, Fonken wrote that people exposed to bright light under those conditions could experience sleep issues, metabolic disturbances and an increased cancer risk.
Neurologist Randy Nelson, department chair for neurology in the medical school at West Virginia University, said that “clinical studies have proved again and again” that people and animals suffer annoyance and adverse health conditions when they are unable to do their sleeping in the dark.
“Whoever thought it was a good idea to turn night into day? It goes against billions of years of evolutionary history,” Nelson said.
Four Paddle residents have spent the last two years asking the Ritz-Carlton to take effective measures to shield the lighting and dim the glare.
They have taken their complaints and pleas for help to California-based developer Jason Grosfeld, chairman and chief executive officer of Irongate; to architect Scott Glass of Guerin Glass; to Ritz-Carlton general manager Doug Chang; to Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and to the city’s Department of Permitting and Planning.
Residents believe that the law is on their side, citing city ordinance 21-4.100 on outdoor lighting:
They’ve repeatedly taken the issue to the Waikiki Neighborhood Board, where board members listen sympathetically and press city officials for updates.
“This has been going on for years,” said Waikiki Neighborhood Board member Jeff Merz, an urban planner who works for an engineering firm. “They broke the lighting ordinance and I don’t know why it’s not being enforced.”
Merz said city officials have been asked repeatedly at neighborhood board meetings to require the towers to comply by shielding the lights, but that nothing seems to happen.
“They hemmed and hawed and said they would look into it,” Merz said.
In an email, Kathy Sokugawa, acting director of the Department of Planning and Permitting, said the city is trying to remedy the problem and is working with the hotel “to come up with a way to shield the light from neighbors.”
In a followup email, DPP officials wrote that there is no requirement under the building code that lights be shielded.
Calls to Doug Chang, the property’s manager, were referred to Huy Vo, director of public relations at the Ritz-Carlton Residences in Waikiki. Vo in turn referred calls to the developer, Irongate, which said it is not required by law to make any changes.
In an emailed statement sent by Vo but which Vo attributed to Irongate, the development firm said it had “engaged in a thorough study of possible solutions and remediated the condition by installing the best possible alternative that met all pertinent code requirements. When made aware of continued complaints related to the newly opened Diamond Head Tower (Tower 2), Irongate took further steps to commission a study that was submitted to the Department of Planning and Permitting on October 23, 2018. This report confirmed, among other things, that the lighting levels on the mauka side of the tower meet all code requirements.”
Irongate has attracted controversy in the past. Grosfeld, its founder, is a long-time associate of President Donald Trump, having worked in partnership with Trump on the Trump International Hotel and Tower Waikiki Beach Walk in 2006. Grosfeld was also a partner with Trump in a project called Trump Ocean Resort Baja Mexico, which failed, causing investors to lose millions of dollars. A special report by Univision said the venture between Grosfeld and the Trump organization was based “on a foundation of lies.”
The Ritz-Carlton development project was much criticized during its construction. City planners allowed the building to exceed the Waikiki height limit and gave their blessing to an unusual orientation on the building site that gave its units ocean views but cut the views of other nearby properties.
In 2014, Civil Beat reported that Grosfeld had made a number of campaign contributions to elected officials, including Caldwell and council members Ikaika Anderson and Stanley Chang.
The Ritz-Carlton is a “condo-hotel,” where individual units are sold to investors, with the units then rented out like hotel rooms. The units came on the market in 2013, advertised at prices ranging from $650,000 to more than $15 million, and were sold primarily to Asian investors, according to news reports. In October, a Ritz-Carlton executive told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that rooms rented for an average of $640 a night.
Many Four Paddle residents unsuccessfully opposed the size and orientation of the Ritz-Carlton development but found themselves with an unexpected additional problem when the lights to the external fire escapes were turned on for the first time.
The residents complained loudly, and while construction was still underway, the development company said it planned to solve the problem. The firm hired a lighting contractor who rigged a cardboard model of a shield he said could be installed on each light and when he installed the experimental device to lights on several floors, Four Paddle residents saw a big improvement and breathed a sigh of relief.
“They had a good effect,” Harpenau said, “so we went silent. We didn’t want to nag them after that.”
But the development firm never installed the shields on the building. Instead, Harpenau said, it installed motion detectors that dim the lights without shielding them and are triggered to full brightness at random times through the night or when someone enters the fire escape.
Four Paddle residents turned to city officials who told them that if Irongate didn’t fix the problem they would refuse to give the development firm a certificate of occupancy for the second tower, Harpenau said.
But the developer didn’t solve the problem and the city nevertheless permitted the Ritz-Carlton to open the doors to the second tower, which features the same glaring light problem.
“We were under the impression there was a solution to be implemented but it never came to fruition,” said Paul Ciliano, the manager of Four Paddle.
Harpenau said he has become disillusioned with government leaders.
“A lot of money from this developer went to the mayor, to the City Council members, to everybody,” he said. “It really confirms what people say, that this is a corrupt system here and it is all about the money.”
More recently, however, Four Paddle residents have found an advocate.
Newly elected state Sen. Sharon Moriwaki looked into the situation, agreed that it was bad, and went with residents to meet with Chang at the Ritz-Carlton. Since then she has met with the city planning department, where officials told her the Honolulu Fire Department is to blame for the problem because it requires bright lights on the outdoor fire escapes. She plans to visit city fire officials next.
Moriwaki thinks the problem is bigger than this one set of buildings.
“It’s not just the Ritz-Carlton,” she said. “It’s every condo that comes up, every condo-hotel that’s coming up. The law needs to be clear about lights going into other buildings.”
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