A sidewalk beautification project has turned into a costly debacle for businesses in one of Waikiki’s most important commercial hubs, the blocks where the tourist district opens up to Kapiolani Park, the Honolulu Zoo and the Waikiki Aquarium.
In the early summer of 2018, the city began work on the sidewalks along Kalakaua Avenue, with the project wrapping around Kapahulu Avenue. The area is home to a string of high-rise hotels with first-floor retail stores and a lineup of popular eateries, including Tiki’s Grill & Bar, Lulu’s Waikiki and, around the corner, Hula’s Bar and Lei Stand.
The work was supposed to be completed by January 2019.
Instead, the project to replace brick with flagstone and add new landscaping and irrigation has dragged on for almost a year, moving from site to site along the avenues.
Through much of that time, pedestrian corridors have been constricted and sometimes nearly impassable, with planks laid to cover holes and mounds of construction debris left overnight. The daytime construction din has driven customers from the area. Some tourists rounding the corner have been forced to walk into the street, risking being hit by a car.
One tourist who crossed to the unlit makai side of Kalakaua because the sidewalk on Kapahulu seemed impassable said he was beaten unconscious and robbed in the shadows.
“It’s a disaster, there’s no question,” said Rick Egged, president of the Waikiki Improvement Association, speaking to the Waikiki Neighborhood Board in May. He acknowledged neighborhood complaints about the project.
“The city made a very poor choice, I think low bid, on this contract,” Robert Finley, chairman of the neighborhood board, wrote in an email. “What should have been a quick replacement of old sidewalks became a nightmare for residents and visitors alike with a general contractor who did not seem to have a clue and ran into issues not anticipated.”
Month after month, Waikiki residents have peppered Mark Yonamine, deputy director of the city’s Department of Design and Construction, who is the mayor’s representative at the monthly board meetings, with questions about the slow pace of work and dangerous conditions.
In March, two months after the scheduled completion, Yonamine told the board that the work was “a little behind schedule but it is progressing.”
In April, board member Grant Giventer asked who was responsible for overseeing the project. Yonamine said it was the department he helps to lead, and acknowledged again that the project was “behind on construction.”
In May, Yonamine did not appear at the meeting and sent written answers to questions submitted by the board, noting that a construction management company, R. M. Towill, had been retained for the project.
City officials declined repeated requests to comment for this report.
Shandy Xie, a project coordinator for Haron Construction of Pearl City, which is doing the work, said the firm encountered unexpected problems, including finding old utility lines and even human remains.
“Old stuff was unearthed,” he said. “A lot of unforeseen stuff came up under the sidewalk.”
Xie said he had joined the project only recently, so he does not know the full story of what has happened at the site and did not elaborate regarding the human remains.
“It’s a construction zone,” he said. “We were demo’ing things. We try to clean up on a daily basis … We try to provide access to all businesses at all times.”
Waikiki residents and a number of local businesses described a chaotic situation.
Ian Miller, general manager of Lulu’s Waikiki restaurant, said sales have fallen by more than $400,000 since February, when the construction blasting began outside of the restaurant’s oceanfront wrap-around lanai. He said breakfast and lunch business has been most affected.
“They are busting concrete so it’s very loud,” he said. “Guests come in, sit down and get up and leave without placing an order.”
Miller said he was told the project would take three or four weeks but instead it has proceeded sporadically for more than five months.
“The planning and execution have completely failed,” he said, adding he had to cut back on his employees’ work hours after business dropped off.
Cecily Sargent, owner of Tucker & Bevvy, a picnic food restaurant on Kapahulu Avenue, said the construction work outside her door began in December and sales have dropped by half.
“July Fourth week is our biggest week of the year and we’ve lost all that business,” Sargent said. “They started at the holidays, Christmas and all the way through. It’s just crazy.”
Sargent said city officials seemed oblivious to the fact that work would be occurring during the busiest part of the tourist season and have failed to reach out to local businesses about the problems and delays.
“I haven’t had one city official come and talk to me,” she said.
Jack Law, the president and owner of Hula’s Bar and Lei Stand, said his business has dropped off about 10 percent in recent months because of construction obstacles.
“Seven months, really?” Law said. “Seven months, this is crazy.”
During that period, he said, customers entering his restaurant have navigated a “serious maze” of detours and construction barricades at Kalakaua and Kapahulu.
“This is not giving tourists a good experience,” he said.
One tourist who harbors particularly bad feelings about Waikiki is Scott Hoey, a veteran law enforcement officer from California who was visiting Honolulu over the holidays. Hoey said he had spent Christmas Eve with friends and was walking back to an apartment when he encountered the construction barricades at the intersection.
“It didn’t look safe to walk through. They had laid plywood over holes in the ground,” he said.
Seeing the narrow passage ahead, he decided to cross the street and walk over to Kalakaua Avenue. On a dark stretch of the street, near the Kuhio groin, he said he was attacked, robbed and badly beaten. He believes his assailant used construction debris in the attack. Hoey reported the attack to the Honolulu police.
The construction company “left broken-up bricks lying on the ground,” Hoey said. “The suspect picked up brick from the construction site and used it to smash me in the head … I don’t understand why they didn’t clean up the site.”
Hoey said he has vacationed in Hawaii every year over the holidays for about 20 years and had planned to retire here, but now thinks Waikiki has become unsafe.
“I used to think of Waikiki like a little beach town,” said Hoey, who said he suffered memory loss and underwent three surgeries after the attack.
Jennifer Nakayama, president and executive director of the Waikiki Business Improvement District, a nonprofit that helps clean and oversee Waikiki’s tourist district, said she has been told that the city had been phasing the work, but that delays in one area cascaded.
“It wasn’t the city’s intention to impact the summer season but the schedule kept getting pushed back,” she said. “The city has had a plan to do this sidewalk improvement for some years, for the beautification of Waikiki.”
Nakayama said the streets will look better when the project is completed.
“In the long run, the better quality of the sidewalk, the maneuverability, will definitely be a benefit for tourists, residents and business,” she said.
But newly elected City Councilman Tommy Waters, who represents Waikiki, said he has begun investigating not only the delays but also the cost of the project, for which the council appropriated $4 million in 2017.
“It’s outrageous, it’s a really expensive sidewalk, appallingly expensive,” Waters said.
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