In recent years, as new condominium towers and trendy retail destinations have taken shape in Kakaako, some of the neighborhood’s busiest streets have crumbled into disrepair amid a bitter legal battle over who owns the roads.
Now, the state Attorney General’s office is taking steps that it hopes will finally end the dispute, bringing relief to businesses and residents who’ve dealt with bad roads and monthly fees to park on them.
In January, it issued a new quitclaim deed that looks to decisively wrest control of the disputed streets from Kakaako Land Company, a private entity, and compel the city to reclaim its ownership of the roads.
“It’s great news — at least one more step forward,” said Robert Emami, who owns The Car Store on Kawaiahao Street, one of the disputed roads controlled by Kakaako Land Company that’s in the worst shape.
“We’re not there yet,” Emami added cautiously.
Owned by brothers Cedric and Calvert Chun, Kakaako Land Company has charged for parking and has towed cars along stretches of Queen, Kawaiahao, Clayton, Ilaniwai and Cummins streets, among several others, for nearly a decade, local business owners say. Emami said his business started paying the company’s $120 monthly fee to use a stall on the street two years ago, after initially resisting.
However, “those streets are, and for over a century have been, government roads dedicated to public use,” the Attorney General’s Land/Transportation Division asserted in a Jan. 29 letter to the city’s acting corporation counsel, Paul Aoki. “The City and County is the owner of those streets by operation of law and until about eight years ago acted as such.”
The letter tersely added that the city’s “abdication of the responsibilities of ownership created a chaotic situation in the neighborhood.”
City officials did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment. However, in 2016 the City Council and Mayor Kirk Caldwell approved a resolution to acquire the roads in dispute via eminent domain. It’s not clear whether the city ever pursued that.
Meanwhile, Kakaako Land Company has neglected to properly maintain those roads, records show.
“Our street hasn’t been touched for about eight years,” Emami said Thursday. “Kawaiahao Street is the worst street here. The potholes are humongous. We’ve got so much traffic and pedestrians going through.”
The jurisdictional dispute over the roads has transformed them into a “no-man’s land,” Emami said. There’s no sidewalks, and pedestrians and cars often come dangerously close to one another as they dodge cracks and potholes.
“Any second, something’s going to go wrong,” he said.
A new law, first introduced as a 2018 measure by state House Speaker Scott Saiki, requires Kakaako Land Company and any other private street owners charging for parking in the neighborhood to keep their roads up to city standards. The Hawaii Community Development Authority, which oversees Kakaako, issued its first warning to the company to fix the roads in July.
Court records show that HCDA then sent the Chuns and Kakaako Land Company a notice of violation in December for failing to do that. The company faces fines of up to $500 per day fine if it doesn’t bring those streets up to city standards.
Neither the Chuns nor their attorney, Wade Katano, responded to requests for comment.
The battle over Kakaako’s crumbling roads actually dates back more than a century — well before statehood — and it largely revolved around a missing deed.
In 1903, previous owner Charles Desky dedicated his Kakaako streets to Hawaii’s former territorial government by way of a Senate resolution, according to court documents.
No deed for that transfer has ever been located, however. Nonetheless, government officials maintained the roads for the next century or so.
Meanwhile, Desky’s granddaughter passed ownership of the roads to the Chuns via a quitclaim deed in 1985, according to state documents. The Chuns then formed Kakaako Land Company, and by 2010 the entity was charging for parking on its Kakaako roads, according to Emami.
The city then stopped maintaining those roads around 2011, according to the Attorney General’s office. Its new quitclaim deed looks to take the place of the deed that’s missing from 1903.
In 2014, several Kakaako businesses brought a lawsuit challenging the Chuns’ ownership of those streets in state court. It’s slated to go to trial in April.
On Tuesday, the attorney representing those businesses, Michael Carroll, filed a motion for summary judgment in his clients’ favor based on the attorney general’s recent actions. The new quitclaim deed removes any dispute over who owns those roads, Carroll said.
“It’s up to the court to decide as to how strongly they’re going to consider it,” he said Tuesday.
The Chuns also control two streets in Waikiki, Cartwright and Lemon roads — where they’ve reportedly rented space to food vendors.
“It’s outrageous what the company is claiming,” Caldwell told KITV in 2016. “We paved some of those roads and now they are charging for parking on the road we repaved. That’s not acceptable.”
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