To the cemetery owners, it seemed like a perfect match. They have vacant land and planned to use it to build an affordable housing project for older adults that could generate much-needed revenue for graveyard upkeep.

But the project has run into opposition from many residents in Manoa who fear the development would increase traffic and cause other disruptions in their already congested neighborhood.

The Lin Yee Chung Association, a nonprofit that owns and manages the historic Manoa Chinese Cemetery, has proposed building four, three-story buildings with 288 one-bedroom apartment units that would be rented to people who are at least 55 years old for between $708 and $1,412 per month.

Manoa Banyan Court, which would be built on forested land between East Manoa and Lower Roads, also would have 185 parking stalls, a community center, a garden and a dog park.

Charles Wong, president of the Lin Yee Chung Association, said the project will help fund the Manoa Chinese Cemetery.
Charles Wong, president of the Lin Yee Chung Association, said the project will help pay for the Manoa Chinese Cemetery. Cassie Ordonio/Civil Beat/2022

Charles Wong, president of the association, said the project is the best chance to maintain the 171-year-old cemetery, which has suffered from a loss of income due to dwindling plot sales.

“If we don’t do something decisively, we will go bankrupt,” Wong said, adding it could take three to five years for that to happen.

The dilemma illustrates growing tensions among people in largely residential neighborhoods who oppose development even as the city needs more affordable housing as the median price for a home on Oahu has surpassed $1 million.

The cemetery opened in 1851 amid an influx of Chinese laborers traveling to Hawaii to work on the sugar cane plantations. Many of the workers died from exhaustion, so the founders of the association offered free burials to honor them, according to Wong.

“The cemetery symbolizes the history of the Chinese people of Hawaii,” Wong said. “It’s been a part of the historical and cultural fabric of Manoa for over 170 years.”

Despite its name, the cemetery is open to everybody, but it’s near full capacity with only about 200 plots left to sell, according to Wong. That has led to financial problems as the owners struggle to keep up the landscape and trim back weeds, bushes and overgrown grass from the thousands of headstones.

Wong said the cemetery can no longer rely on plot sales to fuel its operating budget and could use the rent and other revenue collected from the courtyard housing complex, which would be built next to the cemetery.

Manoa is an affluent neighborhood nestled in a lush green valley. It’s primarily residential with single-family homes and no high-rise buildings.

The forested land between East Manoa and Lower Roads is owned and managed by the Lin Yee Chung Association. The area is where the association is proposing an affordable housing project.
The forested land between East Manoa and Lower Roads is owned and managed by the Lin Yee Chung Association. The area is where the association is proposing an affordable housing project. Screenshot: Google Maps

The association and two G70 architects first presented the proposal last month to the Manoa Neighborhood Board, saying its goals are to fulfill the critical need for affordable housing, maintain the cemetery and be a good neighbor in Manoa.

The proposal wasn’t received well by some residents, who launched an online petition to stop the development that has garnered over 1,300 signatures and staged a small protest last week. Opponents fear the development will increase traffic and noise congestion and remove green space.

“The proposed scope/scale is TOO BIG for our low-density residential neighborhood,” the petition reads. “If we fail to stop it, this high-density development may forever alter the quiet peaceful low-density residential character of Manoa Valley.”

Dylan Armstrong, who chairs the board, said the neighborhood board hasn’t taken a position on the project yet. He added that the board is supposed to be an advisory group.

“Our purpose is to increase and ensure citizen participation in the decisions of government, not the decisions of private property,” he said.

Others were more vocal in their opposition. “We don’t want a three-story condominium in the valley, whether it’s for senior affordable housing or anybody else’s housing,” neighborhood board member Ellen Watson said at the February board meeting. “Those are huge buildings.”

Demonstrators opposing Manoa Banyan Court project gather near University Avenue and East Manoa Road.
Manoa residents rallied against the Manoa Banyan Court project. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Residents also said they didn’t get enough notice about the project.

Manoa resident Brett Kurashige said he feels it “flew under the radar” and “lacked a broader community engagement.”

“We’re very concerned that this will set a bad precedent, not only for us, but for future high-density development in low-density residential areas,” Kurashige said.

Manoa resident Brenda Lam said she has two relatives buried at the cemetery and suggested the association ask the community for donations.

“We realize that the Chinese cemetery is trying to raise money for the preservation of the cemetery, which we are all in agreement on,” Lam said. “We just don’t think this is the correct way to do it.”

Other residents suggested scaling back the project and limiting the height to two-story buildings, comparing it to Manoa Gardens Elderly Housing. That 80-unit development also faced opposition from residents with similar concerns in the late 1980s, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported at the time, but it was funded by the city.

The Manoa Gardens Elderly Housing had received some opposition from Manoa residents in 1988.
The Manoa Gardens Elderly Housing had received some opposition from Manoa residents in 1988. Screenshot: Star Bulletin

State Rep. Dale Kobayashi, who represents Manoa, said the issue is complicated.

“My role is to listen to all sides, whether that’s the cemetery or the residents,” Kobayashi said.

“I think there is a win-win that we can drive towards to support the residents, the cemetery and affordable housing. Maybe there’s some middle ground we can reach,” he added.

Council member Calvin Say, who also represents Manoa, said the creation of affordable housing is the Honolulu City Council’s top priority but noted the Manoa Banyan Court project is in the early planning stages.

“I am glad to see residents engaged in discussion at this point in time,” he said in an email. “I believe that the best projects are those that are developed in collaboration with the community, and I encourage residents to continue voicing their thoughts throughout the process.”

Meanwhile, the project awaits the green light to start construction. The land on which it would be built is zoned as preservation land so the association has to apply for a permit under a state law that facilitates affordable housing by granting exemptions from state and county planning, zoning and construction laws. The Honolulu City Council also must approve the project.

The association’s preliminary timeline is to submit its affordable housing application to the city’s Department of Planning and Permitting early next year with hopes of starting construction by 2024.

In January, the DPP determined the project was eligible to apply for the affordable housing exemptions, but it has not yet approved a permit for the project.

“We’ve also received the draft environmental assessment for the project and are reviewing it. But, again, we haven’t approved anything,” DPP spokesman Curtis Lum said in an email.

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