KOLOA, Kauai — This former sugar town — Hawaii’s first plantation opened here in 1835 — is about to become the unlikely site of Kauai’s first urban village, a pedestrian friendly, small scale mix of shops, offices, restaurants and apartments.

If the development sticks to its plans, there could be dental offices, a drugstore, a laundry, a hair salon and even a naturalist remedy store, along with several small studio apartments designed with the needs of restaurant employees in mind. In the project’s housing area, 64 small apartments of 800 to 1,200 square feet, designed to be affordable will be available. Developers don’t yet know if the units will be rentals or for sale.

It’s all part of Koloa Village, envisioned by Michael Serpa, the developer, as a low rise, mixed use, higher density community covering two large blocks in the middle of Koloa Town. It will in many ways mirror the existing balance of commercial spaces in Koloa.

“Koloa Village will be high quality, but not as high end as are some other projects” that have been developed on Kauai in the last few years, Serpa said recently.

But by striving to be compact and concentrated in a small area, it will avoid the gated community ambiance of places like nearby Kukuiula, whose shopping center is dominated by exclusive boutiques and whose homesites are large and very high end.

Retail outlets and other commercial enterprises are intended to be local, Serpa said, and rental agents will not be trying to recruit chain stores or restaurants. There will be no big box spaces.

The urban village concept at Koloa will aim to be bike and pedestrian friendly. Allan Parachini/Civil Beat/2019

The project will be walkable and bike-friendly, Serpa said, noting that his firm has already modified streets surrounding the project to emphasize pedestrian use.

Construction is set to begin this month, with the initial phase of eight commercial buildings completed in about a year and the housing to follow 18 months or so after that.

“The idea is that if you live in this community, you don’t need to get in your car,” Serpa said.

The commercial spaces, said Ted Blake, a longtime Koloa resident and business leader who is working with Serpa on the Koloa Village project, are intended to offer an experience similar to the Ferry Building in San Francisco, a structure that survived the 1906 earthquake and was resurrected in one of the series of waves of renewal that have swept that city in the last several decades.

“It will draw in local residents with good crafts and merchandise at affordable rents for smaller, manageable spaces,” Blake said. “Someone who never dreamed of having an outlet in a shopping center can realize their dream at Koloa Village.”

Welcome To The Urban Village

The urban village as a concept has its origins in the 1970s. In the 1980s, an organization called the Urban Villages Group came into being in England and that early work has spawned an international movement that has produced hundreds of urban villages in the United Kingdom, Europe and China. In the United States, several major urban areas — most notably Seattle — have embraced the concept.

“The new urbanist village is compact and walkable, usually with 10- to 15-minute diameters in terms of walking distance with narrow streets and an emphasis on pedestrian use,” said Phil Enquist, an urban village expert with the international architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in Chicago. “A good urbanist community would have nothing over a two-lane road.

“It’s really about bringing buildings to the street, so they come up within 10 feet of the sidewalk. Every building tries to contribute to the street environment, as opposed to a typical gated or suburban community, where every building is trying to stand there on its own. It’s important how they all work together.”

Koloa Village developer Mike Serpa envisions a mix of commercial buildings and residential housing for people who will live and work in the urban village. Allan Parachini/Civil Beat/2019

Many urban villages in large cities are also designed as transit hubs, but Kauai’s rural character means the emphasis in Koloa will be on bicycle and pedestrian friendliness, Serpa said. Kauai has an islandwide bus system that serves Koloa, but most lines only run on an hourly basis.

Enquist and Carlo Ratti, an urban village expert at the Senseable City Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said they were unaware of any urban village projects in Hawaii. However, there has been speculation that such developments might take root if the Honolulu rail project, which has been plagued by delays, funding problems and cost overruns, is ever completed. Current projections are for the rail line to be in operation by the end of 2025.

Ratti said there are few urban villages in rural areas, but he said two projects in towns in Portugal, with populations of about 2,500 people, clearly qualify. Koloa’s population, according to the 2010 census, was just over 2,100.

Serpa said commercial spaces in Koloa Village are already about 40% leased. Serpa purchased the property from a would-be former developer in 2014, he said.

When he got it, he said, Koloa Village was designed for only 34 housing units. He cut the size of each to studios and one- and two-bedroom units and upped the density to 64.

Serpa said he has not decided whether the apartments will be rental or for-sale units, but that if they are for sale, the price range will probably be $375,000 to $400,000.

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author