Fed up with potholes, crumbling pavement and burned-out lights at the Hawaii Kai Shopping Center, more than 450 residents of this East Honolulu suburb have rushed to sign a petition calling on the Texas-based property manager to move quickly to make repairs.
Citing what they called “uneven and cracked sidewalks covered with trash,” faded directional signs that pose a hazard to drivers and sidewalk cracks that cause senior citizens to stumble and fall, the Hawaii Kai Change.org petition charges that their “once pleasant and safe shopping center” has been allowed to morph into a “dangerous eyesore.”
On Tuesday, they will take their fight over deterioration at the 37-year-old shopping complex — home to Safeway and Longs Drugs among other shops and restaurants — to the Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board where they will discuss next steps to enlist support.
“People are livid,” said Bert Oshiro, a retired banker who initiated the petition drive after he realized his concerns about the shopping center’s maintenance problems were shared by scores of his fellow Hawaii Kai residents.
But Hawaii Kai residents aren’t alone in feeling that shopping complexes they rely on to provide them with vital goods and services — groceries, medicines, health care, barber shops — have been allowed to deteriorate in recent decades.
Sixty years after the surge of capital investment that followed Hawaii’s statehood, many buildings constructed at that time have been left to disintegrate. Serious maintenance problems have become commonplace at shopping centers, warehouses and office buildings all over the state.
“Deferred maintenance has become an epidemic,” said Honolulu attorney Jim Wright.
“There was a huge building boom and now you’ve got a lot of old buildings that need reinvestment,” said Christine Camp, president and chief executive officer of Avalon Development, whose firm is working to refurbish several such projects right now, including one in Waipahu. Avalon recently converted a towering apartment rental complex in Hawaii Kai — just across the street from the shopping center, in fact — to privately owned condos.
“Things are sliding,” said commercial real estate broker Steven Sofos. “Everything is getting to look more like a dump all the time.”
The same conditions that Hawaii Kai residents describe in their petition can be found in many other locations around Oahu, in Enchanted Lake, Waipahu, Kaneohe, Kaimuki, Kalihi, Waimanalo and Kapolei.
One central factor is Hawaii’s unique land ownership structure. Unlike on the mainland, where property ownership is widely dispersed, much of the land in the state is owned by a handful of large organizations, including Kamehameha Schools, the Queen Emma Land Co., the James Campbell Co., and, more recently, large real estate investment trusts, most of which are based outside of Hawaii.
And unlike on the mainland, most commercial properties occupy their locations on a leasehold basis as tenants — lessees who own the buildings but not the ground beneath them. In many cases, tenants don’t want to make improvements on properties that could shift into other hands when the lease ends.
Sofos said the big landholders squeeze the properties for high rent and these companies in turn squeeze the individual tenants, many of whom are being driven out of business. That makes it hard for building owners to come up with the money for major repairs, he said, noting that repaving a shopping center can cost up to $1 million in Hawaii, given high construction costs.
Some wonder if residents have come to accept shoddy maintenance of commercial properties as acceptable or perhaps inevitable.
“There’s always money to build something new but no money to fix things,” Wright said. “That’s how things are done in Hawaii.”
The Hawaii Kai Shopping Center, built in 1982, was formerly known as Kuapa Kai Shopping Center. Kuapa was the name of a Hawaiian fishpond filled in during the construction of Hawaii Kai. According to “Place Names of Hawaii,” it was once believed that the pond was constructed by the menehune, and was connected by a tunnel to the Kaelepulu pond, which is now called Enchanted Lake.
The Hawaii Kai Shopping Center occupies 144,000 square feet on 10 acres. It is located on Keahole Street, mauka of the Hawaii Kai Towne Center, which houses Costco. It includes a Safeway, Longs Drugs, a branch of The Queen’s Medical Center and a McDonald’s. Part of the property sits on prime land facing the Hawaii Kai marina.
The shopping center is owned and managed by a Dallas-based firm, Dunhill Partners. The land under the building is owned by Hawaii’s largest single landowner, Kamehameha Schools. According to documents filed with the Hawaii Bureau of Conveyances, there are still 28 years remaining on the lease.
In an emailed statement to Civil Beat, Dunhill, the shopping center’s owner, acknowledged residents’ complaints but did not provide details on when the requested repairs might be initiated.
“We are aware of the concerns noted in the recent Change.org petition and we are working diligently to address those issues,” the company said. “Our main goal is to do everything we can to provide a welcoming and enjoyable experience for everyone who visits the Hawaii Kai Shopping Center.”
The company said it had done a lot to maintain and improve the property since it took over the center in 1998, including spending nearly $600,000 on roofing work since 2017. It said it had made repairs to the parking lot behind Safeway and that the grocery store will soon be expanded and remodeled and the remaining roof work completed.
In an email, a Kamehameha Schools spokesman said it is Dunhill Partners’ responsibility to operate and maintain the center.
“We are pushing back on them to get the work done,” said Kamehameha Schools spokesman Aron Dote.
He said that Kamehameha Schools officials are doing what they can to apply “a little more pressure,” but that Dunhill is fulfilling the terms of its lease, leaving Kamehameha Schools with little negotiating power.
State Rep. Gene Ward, who represents Hawaii Kai, has repeatedly asked Dunhill Partners to fix up the center. He said he has approached them more than a dozen times, sometimes once or twice a month, sometimes getting a promise of future work to come and sometimes being ignored.
“We’re bird-dogging them and being the chief naggers-in-residence,” he said, calling the complex “an embarrassment to Hawaii Kai” and to the state.
“They’re probably having a difficult financial time but that’s no excuse for risking public safety,” he said.
One source of frustration for Hawaii Kai residents is that the shopping center has a monopoly in the community since the nearest full-service grocery, Foodland, which had a store at Koko Marina, closed in 2011.
“Safeway is convenient,” said Oshiro, who lives near the shopping center. “We don’t want to go to Aina Haina or worse yet all the way to Kahala. Once Foodland left, a lot of people felt they had no choice.”
When Oshiro and his neighbors began discussing the issue on the Nextdoor.com social media site, he said he was surprised at how quickly the movement grew.
“I didn’t realize how much frustration and even anger there is out there on this issue,” he said.
He and his allies are investigating different ways to bring pressure on the shopping center by reaching out to more lawmakers, government officials and companies that have business dealings with Dunhill.
A similar community pushback in Windward Oahu against bad conditions at a local shopping center led to improvements.
Kaneohe resident Nancy Davlantes said that five years ago she and her neighbors begged the previous owners of Windward City Shopping Center, where the parking lot was pocked with huge potholes, to make repairs.
“I called and got an anemic response,” she recalled. “They said they couldn’t do anything.”
But then she heard that Alexander and Baldwin, a Hawaii-based REIT, had bought the center. She took that news to her friends at the politically influential Koolaupoko Hawaiian Civic Club and they sent a letter on the group’s letterhead stationery asking for repairs, signed by the group’s president.
“That gave an extra shove,” she said, noting that soon A&B was busily resurfacing the parking lot.
Hearing about the problems in Hawaii Kai, Davlantes urged them to keep pushing.
“The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” she said. “Keep squeaking!”
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