My girlfriend and I are apartment hunting. We browse listings online, tour neighborhoods and compare floor plans. Our ideal apartment is within walking distance of work, groceries and public transportation. We’d prefer an airy and clean space with good ventilation.

Goals are easier to set than achieve. In urban Honolulu, rents are high and housing stock is decades old. Many units were built in the 1970s and haven’t been substantially renovated since. This is unfortunate, as poor design decisions were made long ago.

For instance, many older units are stuffy and require air conditioning. Some designers installed wall-to-wall carpeting in these units, ignoring the humid climate. Now, 40 years later, these units are host to toxic mold.

Zoom out, and poor design is repeated at the metropolitan level. Zoning rules designed to separate commercial from residential areas have created automobile dependence and permanent traffic.

Design decisions are durable; they affect people long after architects and urban planners are dead. As developers and politicians make workforce housing a priority, they should be careful to avoid the short-sightedness of designers past.

Downtown Honolulu buildings along Honolulu Harbor with Aloha Tower.

Rents are high in downtown Honolulu, seen here along Honolulu Harbor with Aloha Tower.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

This week, I’m in Bangkok on vacation. Bangkok is a bustling and sprawling metropolis, yet it feels more vibrant than Honolulu, even in outlying neighborhoods.

In Bangkok, there’s no hard line between commercial and residential space. Even Silom and Sukhumvit, the commercial centers of the city, are peppered with residences. Towers rise out of indoor malls, with a dense population able to support an array of businesses below.

Bangkok began operating its first rapid transit system in 1999. Twenty years later, the BTS skytrain and MRT train lines crisscross the city.

Bangkok’s investment in public transportation has allowed the city to transcend car-dependent design.

Commercial spaces in Bangkok aren’t required to build gigantic parking lots. Instead, most people rely on public transportation and ubiquitous taxi service. The result is an efficient use of commercial space and a relatively convenient and affordable transportation system.

True, traffic can sometimes turn bad, but the same is true of Honolulu. The difference is that most people in Bangkok don’t need cars to manage their daily commute and errands. And the elevated rail lines aren’t affected by the traffic below.

The infrastructure has shaped the environment for the better.

HART Rail Guideway columns at the Aolele Street and Nimitz intersection near the Daniel K Inouye International Airport.

City official are hoping rail helps alleviate congestion and opens up new housing opportunities for Honolulu residents.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Rail may help Honolulu enter a new age of transportation, but it’s not enough. Rather than relying on rail to bring workers in from the west side, we should strive for increased density within the urban core.

Kakaako is developing; Kapalama is next. This area is adjacent to the central business district. Government can aid in the development of Kapalama by reconsidering zoning, investing in infrastructure and streamlining the permitting process.

Zoning regulations are invisible infrastructure, and they shape development. If we don’t like the neighborhoods we live in, we should think first of the rules that govern building decisions.

A central error in our current design paradigm is the emphasis on single-use zoning, with rigid separation of commercial and residential space. Drive through Kapalama now, and you can see this segregation. Vast swaths of warehouses and strip malls. Clusters of apartment buildings and houses. No overlap.

As we proceed, we should strive for mixed-use development.

In his book, “The Geography of Nowhere,” James Howard Kunstler argued against single-use development. His TED Talk provides a succinct version of the argument, as he notes that single-use development results in places not worth caring about. In Kunstler’s mind, the strip malls and office parks of Honolulu are design disasters and should not be repeated.

The architect Christopher Alexander made a positive argument for mixed-use design in his books, “The Timeless Way of Buildingand “A Pattern Language.” Alexander advocated for an organic blend of commercial and residential space. This is the pattern of great European cities like Paris and Rome, London and Amsterdam. But building regulations aren’t construction. For that construction, we need tangible infrastructure.

Right now, the only profitable developments are luxury condos.

Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Some people argue that developers don’t pay their fair share for access to infrastructure. I think this concern is narrow.

Making development more profitable means more development. Given our current housing shortage and the aging of our housing stock, new construction is necessary. Thus, government should invest more in infrastructure.

Of course, people will object that this is a giveaway for developers. That’s the point. Right now, the only profitable developments are luxury condos because infrastructure costs are added to already high land, labor and material costs. In order to incentivize mid-market construction, one of these four expenses has to be reduced. Otherwise, we’ll keep getting the $36 million penthouse at Waiea.

Returns on infrastructure investment are delayed but substantial. And infrastructure projects can prop up the construction industry in times of cyclical downturn. According to state economist Eugene Tian, we are in a period of slowing growth. Now is a good time to build.

Finally, government can reform the permitting process.

A recent audit indicated that Honolulu’s Department of Planning and Permitting is slow. 

Slow processing doesn’t only add cost to construction. In some cases, it means that projects aren’t conceived. If investors sense that slow permitting will tie up resources for years, they’re likely to favor other options.

Our next mayor should make reforming the department a priority. Systems should be refined to allow speedy permit processing. And the department should favor mixed-use projects.

We need housing development around the rail stops, especially in the urban core. To help meet this need, state and county governments should coordinate to change zoning regulations, invest in infrastructure, and reform permitting.

The decisions that officials make now will determine the future of Hawaii. 

Thirty years from now, will young professionals struggle to find apartments in the urban core?

Will they wonder why their parents and grandparents decided it was a good idea to maintain bankrupt policies favoring single-use development and automobile dependence?

Or will they take an elevator from their apartment down to the adjacent mall and rail station, ride to work in air-conditioned comfort, and pretend to understand when grandpa repeats his stories of “traffic”?

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About the Author

  • Sterling Higa
    Sterling was raised in Nuuanu. He graduated from Roosevelt High School and later earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard University. Sterling now works as a debate coach and lecturer at Hawaii Pacific University. By candlelight, he is finishing his Ph.D. in education at the University of Hawaii Manoa. The author's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Civil Beat.