What Is A Historic Property? - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Greg Thielen

Greg Thielen is President of Complete Construction Services and is currently working as a Developer and Construction Manager for affordable housing projects. Greg also serves as a volunteer chair for BIA Hawaii Codes Committee, a Member of the City and County of Honolulu Building Board of Appeals and the Board of Directors for Hawaii Habitat for Humanity.

Reading Kirstin Downey’s article, “Honolulu Lacks A Historic Preservation Commission. That May Put Some Sites At Risk,” inspired a trip down memory lane for me.

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My dad was a builder like me and he did a lot of renovation and restoration of old buildings in Chinatown, urban Honolulu and even on neighbor islands. The most notable of these was the restoration of Honolulu’s first “skyscraper,” the Stangenwald Building on Merchant Street. There were many others and I grew up exploring these projects on a regular basis.

Fast forward to high school and summer jobs working in my dad’s shop. I helped assemble and finish many doors, windows, storefronts and even signs that are still in some of those buildings today. While I have no formal training as an architectural historian, I have a deep appreciation for the detail and craftsmanship these buildings display.

More recent memories triggered by the article were less pleasant and revolved around my efforts as a volunteer activist to resolve the building permit backlog with the State Historic Preservation Division. I first became aware of the problem in 2013 and along with many others began meeting with SHPD and eventually the Legislature to try to solve the problem causing this logjam.

As Kirstin Downey pointed out in the current article SHPD is “expected to process some 2,400 to 2,700 permit reviews each year.” To put that into perspective that is 24,000 to 27,000 permits in the last decade. Why so many? Does anyone really believe there are 27,000 historic properties in Hawaii that all needed building permits in the last 10 years?

Ironically the answer to that question starts with another question. What is a historic property? A simple Google search will provide a handful of mostly consistent answers that focuses on the age of the property as well as it having historical, architectural, archaeological or cultural significance.

Unfortunately, what the state of Hawaii defines as “historical property” is significantly looser. The statute governing historic preservation is HRS Chapter 6E and the section governing definitions is 6E-2. The Hawaii State definition reads as follows: “Historic property” means any building, structure, object, district, area, or site, including heiau and underwater site, which is over 50 years old.

Maunakea Market in Chinatown
The Maunakea Market in Chinatown is a historic building under state law. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

So, there is no requirement or threshold beyond age to become “historic.” Do you live in a 1960s tract home? It’s historic. Is the grocery store you shop at built before 1972? It’s historic.

There’s a fast-food restaurant that has been in my neighborhood since before I was alive. It has been remodeled so many times it is unrecognizable from what it was 50 years ago, but it’s never been torn down. Therefore, yes, you guessed it, it’s historic. Essentially the definition itself casts such a wide net, that it covers far too much ground.

Despite repeated attempts to correct what many see as a problematic definition, the law remains as is. As a result, SHPD spends time reviewing 2,400 to 2,700 permits a year and as Alan Downer, state historic preservation administrator, said: “There is no question in my view we don’t have enough resources to do enough proactive preservation stuff.”

I believe that preservation allows for a very real and tangible connection with our past that has an important cultural value.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have SHPD doing “proactive preservation stuff” than looking over 2,400 to 2,700 permit applications a year.

That to me is the deciding factor when faced with the possibility of an overhauled and active Oahu Historic Preservation Commission. What in fact will this commission be tasked to do and how will they deal with the issue of defining “historic property?” If the goal is to simply take over or, worse yet, duplicate the current SHPD review process, that is doubling down on a losing bet. Also, will the OHPC simply accept the state definition of “historic properties” as its mandate for preservation? Preserving every building, structure or object over 50 years of age would be a fool’s errand.

If Honolulu wants to take a proactive approach to cataloging and documenting historic properties, that is a noble and worthwhile goal, provided they decide on a reasonable threshold for what historic property is. If they want to advocate for property owners to preserve and restore historic property, that is a noble and worthwhile goal, however it still comes back to qualifying what historic property is in the first place. If they can do this the right way, no one would be happier than me.

I still take pride when I see some of my work in these buildings. I still feel a very real connection with my dad when I pass by his work. I believe that preservation allows for a very real and tangible connection with our past that has an important cultural value. However, calling everything over 50 years old “historic” does nothing but diminish that value.

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About the Author

Greg Thielen

Greg Thielen is President of Complete Construction Services and is currently working as a Developer and Construction Manager for affordable housing projects. Greg also serves as a volunteer chair for BIA Hawaii Codes Committee, a Member of the City and County of Honolulu Building Board of Appeals and the Board of Directors for Hawaii Habitat for Humanity.


Latest Comments (0)

Such a spot on assessment of another proposed expansion of city government's bloated payroll and layers of unnecessary red tape. Rather than look at what's wrong with the process, legislators would rather just add more civil servants to the payroll to do fruitless work. Preserving every building, structure or object over 50 years of age would be a fool’s errandLet your council member know they need to think a little before proposing to add to government payrolls and bureaucracy.

wailani1961 · 4 weeks ago

LOL when they first passed the historic preservation law the criteria, as you observed, Greg, were so broad as to be ludicrous. Practically everything older than almost half the people in Hawaii qualified. Worse, with a staff of few and a budget of dollah tree eighty they were required to conduct site visits of every structure. How many housing units are built on Oahu nowadays? Barely 2,000/annum on a 10-year rolling average basis. How many before 50 years ago? More than 7,000/annum late-1940s through early-1970s. Multiply 7k by 25 that's choke site visits if you like renovate. I happened to meet those people at the time, in a panel discussion, and wondered aloud if they couldn't just prescreen using Google Earth like the rest of us peasants. They gave me the Tita Stink Eye From Hell so I zipped it and lived to die another day. I still don't know how they process, in actuality.

Paul_Brewbaker · 4 weeks ago

A very good point raised. What may additionally help describe the prevailing situation is a statistical breakdown of the past permit review disposition by category. Though the current Hawaii laws say age of 50 years is one of the criteria that triggers a review, the review disposition often results something other than full physical preservation or restoration.Mr. Greg, mahalo for your volunteering in the recent years to help State SHPD. Now can you go and please help the City & County of Honolulu DPP? If you can champion and start a volunteer program to speed up building permit review, even just with the "pre-screen;" now that would be monumental help.

Canoe · 4 weeks ago

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