The city plans to take control on Aug. 22 of a Diamond Head Street that has become the focal point of a bitter neighborhood battle.
The city will take over Leahi Avenue under a Hawaii statute that authorizes “any county or authorized personnel” to impose and enforce traffic regulations on private roads that have been used by the general public for at least six months, said Roger Morton, director of the city’s Department of Transportation Services.
The announcement came two weeks after a dilapidated food truck parked on Leahi Avenue, despised by neighbors as a traffic risk, burst into flames and was destroyed on July 29, in what city officials now say was an accidental fire.
Leahi Avenue, a well-used thoroughfare since horse-and-buggy days, is a busy road that serves a diverse population, including owners of expensive single-family homes and a cluster of about 400 moderately priced condominiums and apartments. Apartment residents, many of whom work two or three jobs, have long parked along Leahi Avenue because there are not enough parking spaces in the area.
The street also houses Waikiki Elementary School, the city’s lifeguard headquarters and a popular community garden.
In October 2020, a Diamond Head resident, Mary Moriarty Jones, claimed Leahi Avenue as her private property after purchasing it for $10 in a quit-claim deed from Lunalilo Trust, who Jones said owned the street. Jones said she had to take ownership of the street because the city had failed to make improvements on it.
She particularly wanted a sidewalk so children could walk to school safely, she said.
Caldwell administration officials had refused to make the changes Jones sought because, they said, the street had never formally belonged to the city, although the city had repaved and maintained it.
Jones now holds title to Leahi Avenue under an organization she named Safe Leahi LLC. After she bought it, she put up traffic signs that turned the two-way street into a one-lane road with traffic permitted to travel in both directions, reduced the speed limit and closed off parking on the road’s unimproved shoulders, the place where apartment dwellers parked.
Then she began renting out parking stalls for $150 a month, placed rental scooters there and permitted food trucks to park in front of the elementary school. She said she did it to pay for her costs.
Neighbors said the road became a “death-trap” because the food trucks constricted the street and blocked visibility. They also protested their loss of parking.
Ryan Kusuda, principal of Waikiki Elementary School, said Safe Leahi’s street changes had placed children at risk and created parking snarls.
John Titchen, the city’s ocean safety chief, said the changes made it more difficult to get life-safety equipment into and out of the headquarters building.
Morton said the city has asked Safe Leahi to remove all commercial operations and to take down the signs she placed on the street by Aug. 22.
He said the fire that destroyed the food truck was accidental. “The fire department has determined that it was an unintended fire,” he said.
The timing was fortuitous, he said.
“We wanted to get rid of the trucks by the time school started and we were successful with that,” he said.
Morton said the city paid to tow the burned-out hulk away.
School opened on Aug. 1.
Morton said the city will also pursue a quit-claim deed from Jones that “simply extinguishes” any claims that Jones may have.
Once the city takes over the road, engineers will decide what improvements should be made to the street, Morton said. Leahi Avenue will likely be placed on a priority list for improvements, but the list is 20 years long.
In the meantime, he said, the road will be restored to its pre-2020 condition.
“In our view we are putting it back to the way it was,” he said.
He said that neighbors should be able to begin parking there again, although the issue will fall under the discretion of the Honolulu Police Department.
“The issue with unimproved shoulders is that technically you are not supposed to park there, ” Morton said. “The reality is that there are many, many places around the island that have unimproved shoulders where people park all the time. Generally HPD makes an issue out of it only if there are community complaints about safety issues.”
He said many people regularly park on unimproved shoulders and installing sidewalks is often controversial.
“If I was to announce I was putting sidewalks in Manoa, there would be a revolution,” he said.
Morton said city officials would balance the points of view of different parties to decide what happens next on Leahi Avenue. City Council Chair Tommy Waters would have a determining voice, he said.
In a press release Sunday, Jones said this was exactly what she had hoped to achieve. She said her goal all along was for the city to take responsibility for management of the street.
“If you’ll pardon a pun, it has been a long road to victory — a victory that most of us didn’t think was possible,” she said.
She said the city’s resources would make it possible to get sidewalks on the road.
Linda Wong, an area resident, said that she is glad that things appear to be approaching a resolution but that the people who lived in the apartments had been damaged in the process.
“These places were built without enough parking,” she said. “People were sold condos without parking and told they could park on the street. Right now everybody’s talking about whether we will get our parking back.”
Andrew Salenger, chair of the Diamond Head/Kapahulu/St. Louis Heights Neighborhood Board, said he could not comment until all the remaining cars, trucks and signs were removed.
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A Kailua girl, Kirstin Downey is a reporter for Civil Beat. A long-time reporter for The Washington Post, she is the author of “The Woman Behind the New Deal,” “Isabella the Warrior Queen” and an upcoming biography of King Kaumualii of Kauai. You can reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.