Construction of the long-anticipated Wahiawa Civic Center, a $48 million courthouse and public service complex designed as a centralized mid-island gathering place, has hit a snag.

Gov. David Ige has declined to sign off on the revised environmental impact statement, finalized in January, that would allow the demolition of existing buildings on the site and construction of the new structures.

In a statement, Ige’s office said that the environmental impact statement “is undergoing review,” but declined to provide further details, including explaining why it has taken so long.

The civic center, first proposed by local leaders in 1957, will feature a new District Court building and state and city facilities, including a satellite city hall, a driver’s license customer center and a raft of health and welfare agencies. Located on a nearly 4-acre parcel on California Avenue, a main thoroughfare through Wahiawa, adjacent to a bus transit hub on one side and the Wahiawa library on the other, the new complex will act as a consolidated government service center for central Oahu and the North Shore.

Architectural rendering of Wahiawa Civic Center
The Wahiawa Civic Center, to be located on California Avenue, has been designed and is ready for construction but the project is on hold. Architects Hawaii

Wahiawa Civic Center is a pet project of state Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, born and raised in Wahiawa, who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which oversees the state’s spending and money management. He secured the funding in 2020, placing it in the Judiciary budget. The original appropriation for the project was $76 million but the bids came in lower, and the contracted price came in at $48.4 million.

Ige’s inaction is delaying the project, according to state and city officials.

“The hold-up is the construction Notice to Proceed, because we don’t have the necessary permits, which cannot be issued until the Governor accepts the 2nd Final EIS,” said Chris Kinimaka, public works administrator for the state Department of Accounting and General Services, in a statement. “DAGS has been awaiting the Governor’s acceptance since this document was published on January 23, 2022.”

Wahiawa/Whitmore Village Neighborhood Board member Lei Uemura Learmont said she couldn’t understand Ige’s reluctance because she said it saves taxpayer money for the government to consolidate public services in buildings owned by the state rather than paying to lease commercial space elsewhere.

“The Civic Center is in trouble now because Ige hasn’t signed off on it,” she said. “It’s very confusing. It’s smart to get so many state and city offices there.”

Dela Cruz has spent two decades trying to make the civic center a reality, first as a member of the Wahiawa neighborhood board, then as a member of the Honolulu City Council and later in his role as a state legislator. He wants to revitalize Wahiawa, a former plantation town with significant social and demographic challenges, by introducing new economic activity to the downtown area.

“We are giving it better life because there will be additional services for the community,” he said.

An Idea That’s Languished

Over the years, grand plans for Wahiawa’s civic center came and went. The location came to be occupied by a series of temporary, substandard buildings housing government services, including various public assistance programs. For a while, a small police station was located there.

Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz has been working to make the civic center a reality for decades. He was born and raised in the community, where he still lives. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

In March 2020, the property hit a low point when two small wooden structures that housed Wahiawa Women Infants and Children, a government agency that gives food and nutrition advice to low-income families, burned down, reportedly the work of an arsonist.

The redeveloped complex will consist of two main buildings, one for the judiciary and the other for state and city services.

Dela Cruz said the project will allow officials to move judiciary services into a more secure location built for the purpose instead of remaining in their current location, a leased office building at 1034 Kilani Ave. that was not designed for criminal justice and does not meet current safety standards.

The state Departments of Human Services and Health, the Adult Mental Health Division and Public Health Nursing offices would be housed there as well.

Having a satellite city hall on the site will make it easier for people in the Wahiawa area and on the North Shore to access city services instead of needing to drive to Honolulu or elsewhere, Dela Cruz said.

“It’s going to be useful,” he said. “The community has been wanting it for forever.”

Dela Cruz also intends to rebuild and expand the library.

Not everyone is thrilled about the project, however.

At a Wahiawa neighborhood board meeting last year, chair Jeanne Ishikawa lamented the impending loss of the wide lawns and old-growth trees surrounding the small buildings now on the site, saying the new structures would consume the last bit of open green space in central Wahiawa. A towering monkeypod tree and some vegetation will be preserved but much will need to be cleared away to make space for two large buildings and a parking lot.

Wahiawa resident Larry Meacham, who lives nearby, said he feared a “parking apocalypse” when the complex is completed, pointing out that the complex will house 115 workers and have only 116 parking spaces, which will not be enough to provide parking for visitors, he said.

Despite those criticisms, and until early this year, the project appeared to be moving forward at a steady clip.

“The project is on time and on schedule, and that’s very exciting,” Wahiawa Civic Center project consultant Trisha Kehaulani Watson told the Wahiawa neighborhood board in October 2021, more than a  year ago.

A few months later, however, the project hit a roadblock, around the time the EIS landed on Ige’s desk.

The setback has infuriated Dela Cruz, who noted that construction costs continue to rise, and the project’s delay could make it more expensive. He said he also considered it a personal affront.

“When you put money in the budget you want to make sure it gets spent so the people in the district can benefit from your efforts,” he said.

In a mailer sent to his constituents this month, Dela Cruz urged people in his district to call the governor’s office and complain.

No Love Lost Between These Two

Relations between the mild-mannered governor and the pugnacious Dela Cruz, one of the most powerful members of the state Senate, have often been strained.

In 2018, Dela Cruz joined much of the Legislature’s leadership in endorsing Ige’s rival, Colleen Hanabusa, when the governor ran for reelection.

Dela Cruz has been a frequent and open critic of Ige, having charged that Ige was overspending and mishandled Covid. More recently, Dela Cruz warned that the governor was approaching illegal action in his plans for Aloha Stadium. A top Ige official once complained he was bullied by Dela Cruz and other senators.

Ige, for his part, has done little to help advance Dela Cruz’s interests, despite the importance of the senator’s political post, vetoing an energy bill earlier this year keenly sought by the Wahiawa senator.

Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii, said it would be unusual for Ige to stall a project to take revenge on a political foe, but noted that the two men “have been at loggerheads for a long time on a variety of issues.”

“It’s not really in Gov. Ige’s character to block something simply because he is trying to punish someone,” Moore said.

But, he noted, with Ige wrapping up his last few days in office, the temptation to slow-walk a rival’s project may have proven too great to resist, he said.

“This may be a final parting shot,” he said. “Maybe Gov. Ige isn’t above being a little petty in his last days in office.”

Dela Cruz said he was prepared to wait until Ige was gone if necessary.

“We will have to work with the next governor if the governor isn’t going to do the signing,” he said. “We will have to work with the next governor starting Dec. 5,” which is Ige’s last day in office.

Wahiawa state building that contains the welfare office and Wahiawa Extension offices located next to the Wahiawa Transit Center.
The state building in Wahiawa now houses the welfare office and an extension service. City and state officials envision a full-service civic center complex where central Oahu residents can obtain government services they now have to drive to Honolulu to access. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

City and state officials declined to discuss the dispute.

Jan Kagehiro, a spokeswoman for the Hawaii State Judiciary, said that court officials are looking forward to occupying the new space when it is eventually completed.

“The Judiciary is pleased with the progress of the Wahiawa Civic Center project and appreciates Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz for his leadership, and the legislature for including a new District courthouse in its plans,” she said in a statement. “Having the courthouse and related government services in a convenient and secure location in the heart of Wahiawa town will certainly be a benefit to the community.”

Ditto from the city.

“We are extremely enthused about the possibility of offering, when the time is right, such basic government services as obtaining a driver’s license and renewing a motor vehicle registration at the proposed Wahiawa Civic Center,” said Kim Hashiro, director of Honolulu’s department of customer services.

Hashiro said the city “would defer to the state for a response to the timeline for the project.”

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