Honolulu Lacks A Historic Preservation Commission. That May Put Some Sites At Risk

Honolulu, once home of a monarchy and a mecca for global trade and maritime exploration, is internationally famous for the unique historic places that reflect its rich and diverse cultural history. It is also the largest destination city in America without a historic preservation office keeping an eye on its treasured sites.

Almost 3,000 cities in America, including San Francisco, San Diego, Boston, Dallas and Seattle, have officially recognized historic preservation offices, which enable local governments to get federal funding to help identify and preserve historic properties and landscapes. In Hawaii, only Maui, Kauai and the Big Island are on that list.

Instead, Honolulu relies on the overworked and overwhelmed State Historic Preservation Division of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, which struggles to review the thousands of permits it is mandated by law to evaluate, leaving little or no time for scouting problems in advance. That leaves sites on the state’s most populous island, which is governed by the City and County of Honolulu, vulnerable to development, deterioration and destruction.

Many Chinatown residents want the city to improve its historic preservation oversight. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

Need For Advocacy

“There’s no advocacy in the city, no one reviewing projects thinking of historic preservation,” said Honolulu resident Lee Stack, who is worried about developers’ proposals to build high rises in Chinatown’s historic district, which is on the national register of historic places. “We need a historic preservation advisory commission made up of knowledgeable people.”

According to records kept by the National Park Service, Hawaii, which has a population of 1.4 million, has the fewest number of local preservation agencies in the nation. Other states with similar populations have between seven and 25 such commissions, representing municipal governments ranging in size from tiny towns to major metropolitan areas.

Most of the United States embraced historic preservation a half century ago. The landmark National Historic Preservation Act, which created the national system, passed in 1966. It was amended in 1980 to create the Certified Local Government program to encourage historic preservation on the municipal level and provide funding for it. Hundreds of cities quickly jumped on board and have remained active participants.

But this didn’t happen in Honolulu. Real estate interests have had disproportionate clout in Hawaii since the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, with pro-development forces and political officers closely intertwined. The 1990 book, “Land and Power in Hawaii: The Democratic Years,” chronicled thousands of transactions where Democratic political leaders benefited from construction industry ties. Prior to statehood, Republican leaders did the same when they controlled the territorial government.

Real estate developers and construction unions, which remain major campaign contributors to political candidates in Hawaii, often resist efforts they say would create new obstacles to development amid an already cumbersome bureaucracy.

State Historic Preservation adminstrator Alan Downer at their offices located in Kapolei.
State Historic Preservation administrator Alan Downer, shown in the Kapolei office, worries that the state is unable to perform the proactive preservation work that would prevent losses of treasured sites. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Without a city preservation office, the state historic preservation division is frequently asked to try to prevent destruction of old sites on Oahu, but it is widely acknowledged that it lacks enough staff to handle its current workload, with only 36 workers expected to process some 2,400 to 2,700 permit reviews each year for private interests, the city and the state and federal government.

Some new funding is on the way, but state officials alone can’t fill the gap, and approval decisions in Honolulu are ultimately made by the city in any case, sometimes before state officials have even had a chance to review the request.

“There is no question in my view we don’t have enough resources to do enough proactive historic preservation stuff, we just don’t,” said Alan Downer, state historic preservation administrator.

Several old buildings, for example, were recently damaged or destroyed in the old part of Haleiwa on the North Shore, said Boyd Ready, a historic preservation advocate and volunteer tour guide in the North Shore community.

He said that there is no one to intervene when this kind of thing happens because there is no city authority whose job is to watch out for historic properties and SHPD is too understaffed to act as an advocate for protecting sites.

Honolulu has never even completed an inventory of its historic sites.

In June, a house on property known as the Queen’s Retreat, a location that inspired Liliuokalani to pen Hawaii’s anthem song, Aloha Oe, burned to the ground after years of neglect and a failure of government oversight, commitment and funding.

Boyd-Irwin-Hedemann Estate Queen's Retreat fire
Historians pleaded with officials to save the historic Boyd-Irwin-Hedemann Estate but, abandoned and covered with graffiti, the building burned to the ground in June. Courtesy: Merrill Johnston/2019

At Niu Valley in February, a homeowner looking to increase the number of parking spaces on his property tore down ancient stone walls that were associated with a heiau and lookout for King Kamehameha, Hawaii News Now reported.

That same month, Wailupe residents reported heavy machinery was being used to move earth in the area of burial caves, at a spot where the city had previously mistakenly permitted an eight-home subdivision to be built.

“It’s terrible,” said historian Chris Cramer, executive director of the Maunalua Fishpond Heritage Center. “We never learn about it until the bulldozers are rolling in. The community now has very little input.”

Boyd-Irwin-Hedemann Estate Queen's Retreat fire
A watercolor of the Boyd-Irwin-Hedemann Estate in its heyday by Carter Blank, painted in 1991. Courtesy: Drudi Johnston

Concerned residents often become frustrated when they learn belatedly of decisions made by city officials and the scandal-plagued Department of Planning and Permitting, sometimes in a chaotic way, advocates said.

“These are things that aren’t happening in a systematic way in Honolulu,” said Kiersten Faulkner, executive director of the Historic Hawaii Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group that tracks endangered properties. “They happen ad hoc, depending on who the players are, but there is no system to ensure” that checks are in place.

This is not because people on Oahu don’t respect and value historic places. They do.

In 1993, the Honolulu City Council unanimously passed an ordinance to establish a nine-member historic preservation commission composed of architects, historians, archaeologists and Hawaiian cultural practitioners to protect and preserve historic properties and artifacts, and encourage the restoration and rehabilitation of cultural resources.

But then-Mayor Frank Fasi opposed the measure and vetoed it. The City Council overrode Fasi’s veto, and Fasi went to court in an effort to block establishment of the preservation commission. The lawsuit was dropped, but the commission nonetheless fell into limbo.

The top city officials were concerned that preservation issues would hinder development and become an obstacle, recalled cultural consultant Mahealani Cypher, who had pushed the city to enact the measure.

Subsequent mayors, including Jeremy Harris who was the city’s managing director under Fasi, also declined to take steps to establish the commission.

Mahealani Cypher Fault Lines
Mahealani Cypher said the commission’s creation was opposed by mayors who did not want to obstruct development. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Faulkner joined the Historic Hawaii Foundation in 2006 after working as a city planner in Denver. She quickly realized that unlike Denver, the lack of a city historic preservation commission in Honolulu allowed many properties to slip through the cracks.

Over the years, she and her allies pleaded with mayors to set up the commission, pointing out that the authorizing law was already on its books.

“They would usually deflect, put it back to the planning department to assess whether it was something they wanted to do or would use, and most, well, all of the planning departments decided not to follow through,” she said. “They had different reasons but most of it came down to that they felt it was the state’s job and they would let the state take care of it and they didn’t want more work.”

More recently, Faulkner said she asked former Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration to set up the commission but received no response. Downer, state historic preservation administrator, said he also wrote to Caldwell fruitlessly.

Previous Attempts

Instead city officials tried to kill the ordinance that had created the commission. In March 2020, Kathy Sokugawa, the DPP’s acting director, wrote to then-City Council Chair Ikaika Anderson to recommend that the commission be abolished because, she wrote, it duplicates work done by SHPD. This came amid a periodic review of city boards and commissions.

Caldwell’s managing director, Roy Amemiya, approved the request. (Amemiya is now facing federal conspiracy charges on an unrelated matter.)

At a City Council hearing on July 16, 2020, Sokugawa said the Oahu Historic Preservation Commission was unneeded.

“To my knowledge, it has never been convened,” she said. “We don’t see a gaping need for it. We believe the adequate state laws under the Department of Land and Natural Resources are sufficient, therefore we are recommending that the commission be dropped.”

Ron Menor, then a council member representing District 9 and chair of the council’s zoning, planning and housing committee, agreed.

“The commission has never been constituted, so the likely recommendation of this committee is that the ordinance establishing this commission be repealed,” he said.

At the next meeting, however, council member Tommy Waters recommended that what he called “an important commission” be retained in hopes that the next mayor would “fully embrace this commission when others have not.” Menor placed the issue “under advisement” and took no further action.

Menor is now running for a seat representing District 8. He did not respond to requests for comment.

“We are trying to find a way to balance our support for the preservation of historical and cultural resources with our goal of reducing the time it takes to get permits and get things done.” — Managing Director Mike Formby

A new administration arrived in January 2021, when Mayor Rick Blangiardi took office, Waters became chair of the council and Esther Kiaaina became vice chair. Kiaaina wanted to protect and advance historic preservation, not shut it down.

Kiaaina and Waters sponsored new city legislation, known as Bill 44, which was introduced in July to amend the Oahu Historic Preservation Commission law. It would retain the nine-member commission, specifically include public advocacy as part of its mission and order the creation of an inventory of historic places on Oahu.

“I introduced Bill 44 to ensure protection of Honolulu’s remaining social, cultural, and archaeological resources,” Kiaaina said in a statement. “Hawaiʻi has a sad history of systemic dehumanization and intentional desecration of burial and other cultural sites and while those types of activities are much less common today as a result of action taken by the federal and state governments and community leaders, missteps in the not so distant past support that more coordination is necessary to protect the little remaining properties and resources that Honolulu has left.”

Bill 44 easily passed its first reading on Aug. 10 but is likely to face more controversy as it advances.

Honolulu City Council member Esther Kiaaina.
Honolulu City Council member Esther Kiaaina wants the historic commission created. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The next big question is whether Blangiardi will support the legislation and stand up the commission.

Honolulu Managing Director Mike Formby said Blangiardi supports the bill in concept but wants to make sure that the bill meets legal requirements and does not create additional burdensome regulations that slow down project approvals unnecessarily.

Procedures would need to be established to prevent redundancies between the state and city systems, so it would be important to make sure the state delegated oversight to city officials and commissioners who were trained and equipped to provide appropriate oversight, he said.

“We are trying to find a way to balance our support for the preservation of historical and cultural resources with our goal of reducing the time it takes to get permits and get things done,” Formby said. “That’s what we are really interested in, working with council member Kiaaina to find that sweet spot. Let’s find a way to do it that makes us part of the solution versus part of the problem.”

He said that while the mayor has heard from historic preservation supporters who want the commission, he has also heard from developers who fear another layer of hurdles.

Kiaaina has indicated that she expects there to be some back-and-forth in the final crafting of the measure, and is aware that there will be some opposition.

If the commission were approved, the city would become eligible for specialized federal funding that can be used to preserve properties, said Megan Brown, chief of the state, tribal and local plans and grants office of the National Park Service.

She said participation in historic preservation programs depends on political leaders being willing to advocate to retain their historic neighborhoods and properties, acknowledging that not every city sees the value in preserving its historic places.

“Communities are strong because of the culture they maintain, not just their historic buildings but the culture that goes with it,” she said. “It’s all about local leadership and vision.”

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