Denby Fawcett: OHA Gets Emotional In Campaign To Build High Rises In Kakaako Makai - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

The agency says it is a matter of Hawaiian rights. Opponents say the land must be protected.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs has launched a powerful and emotional campaign to persuade the Native Hawaiian community, state lawmakers and other residents to support its wish to build three 400-foot condominium towers and other commercial and cultural development on rare open oceanside land in Kakaako.

Current state law prohibits high-rise resident developments in that area.

In November, OHA named the development Hakuone. Even though it lacks a fully developed master plan, the name gave the project a reality and individuality it did not have when it was spoken of more broadly as “OHA’s proposal to develop on Kakaako Makai.”

OHA took ownership of 30 acres of land on the makai side of Kakaako in 2012 when it accepted the state’s land offer in settlement of a $200 million debt it was owed in payments for ceded lands.

Ceded lands are Hawaiian crown and government property taken by the U.S. in 1898 after the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom with no compensation given to the Hawaiian people.

Community advocates for protecting the Kakaako waterfront have fought for almost 20 years to keep the prime recreational area free from high-rise apartment buildings. They say OHA’s effort this year is more focused and determined than past efforts. 

“OHA is trying harder than ever before. Naming the property Hakuone makes it sound like a done deal,” said Ron Iwami.

Iwami was a central player in Save Our Kakaako, a group that successfully derailed Alexander and Baldwin’s plan in 2006 to build high-rise towers and retail shops on 36 acres of prime state waterfront property surrounding Kewalo Basin Harbor.

Kakaako Makai OHA
OHA wants to build three 400-foot condominium towers and other commercial and cultural development on oceanside land in Kakaako. (Office of Hawaiian Affairs)

The efforts of Iwami and other activists led to the 2006 state law to keep Kakaako makai free from high-rise residential towers and to prohibit the sale of government land on that ocean frontage.

Valuable Real Estate

OHA’s TV commercials and legislative testimony in its new campaign portray Native Hawaiians as victims of unjust treatment because lawmakers have repeatedly turned down the agency’s request to build residential high rises.

Much of the land OHA received sits empty now, dusty, littered and unappealing. In architectural renderings, OHA presents Hakuone as a waterfront Mecca — a pedestrian friendly, attractive gathering place.

“All we are asking for is justice for Hawaiians. Justice for Hawaiians from our own state government. Justice for Hawaiians in our own native land,” OHA board chair Carmen Hulu Lindsey said Wednesday at a state Senate hearing.

Rendering of planned Kakaako Makai development OHA
An architectural rendering of OHA’s planned Kakaako makai development shows it as a friendly place. (Office of Hawaiian Affairs)

Critic Iwami disagrees. “It has nothing to do with injustice. OHA is trying to cloud the issue. It wants to construct residential high rises on special land protected by state law. We will fight whomever wants to do that,” Iwami said.

In a TV commercial — one of four OHA is running now — iconic singers Nina Kealiiwahamana and Robert Cazimero say, “Tell lawmakers to lift restrictions on what we Hawaiians can do with our own land.”

The ads frame OHAʻs quest as one of Hawaiian rights, not high-rise construction on one of the last undeveloped, open oceanfront parcels in urban Honolulu.

OHA knew it would face community opposition when it took ownership of nine parcels of Kakaako Makai land in 2012. The law prohibiting residential development had been already been in effect for six years before OHA accepted the settlement.

In addition, two years before OHA accepted the stateʻs offer, Hawaii Community Development Authority — the state agency that oversees Kakaako development —  had accepted a community-driven master plan commissioned by HCDA that emphasized Kakaako makai lands were to be kept open for the public for cultural, commercial, educational and recreational uses, not high-rise housing.

‘Take It Or Leave It’

OHA also accepted the transfer in 2012 knowing the land under the parcels was polluted with toxic chemicals from years of use as an industrial site and garbage dump. 

So, if it was such a raw deal, why did OHA accept it?

The agency said it capitulated because it was getting nowhere after years of negotiations with the Legislature.

“The four years prior to that point in time were filled with rejections by lawmakers of OHA’s prior requests. OHA did not want to see yet another attempt fail. Plus lawmakers at the time had put a veil of ‘take it or leave it’ over it,” the agency said in an email.

“OHA was also assured it could come back at a future date to obtain the entitlements for the land. This intent by lawmakers was captured in Senate Committee meeting reports and also voiced by the then Governor,” it added.

OHA has since pleaded unsuccessfully with the Legislature three times, in 2012, 2014 and 2021, to lift the residential development restrictions on all of Kakaako Makai land — not just the plots it owns — and to rescind the ban on selling public land in that area.

OHA says the restrictions have blocked it from realizing the full commercial value of the land — making the state’s settlement worth only $91 million instead of the supposedly $200 million the state said it was repaying it.

Kakaako high rise development OHA
A diagram shows OHA’s Kakaako makai parcels. OHA wants to build high rise towers on parcels E and F/G. F/G is two separate parcels. It is known as the “Piano Lot” because of its shape. (Office of Hawaiian Affairs)

Yet the current Honolulu County tax assessment for OHA’s parcels in Kakaako puts their value at $309,528,800.

As for the toxic materials, OHA said it knew about the pollution but it “was not given any meaningful amount of time to perform a due diligence on the lands to truly understand the soil and infrastructure conditions before accepting them.”

“OHA believes it can remedy the soil conditions just as many other development projects have in the past. Projects across Iwilei and Kaka’ako have all dealt with contaminated soils successfully,” it added. “OHA will do what it must to clean up its land to support development.” 

In its new Hakuone campaign, OHA says it is unfair to Hawaiians to be constrained while developers are profiting on the mauka side of Ala Moana Boulevard by building dozens of residential high rises. 

“It is hard to escape the double standard in the fact that developers with deep pockets and minimal local ties, and investors from outside Hawaii, have been able to build and profit handsomely from multimillion-dollar condos in high-rises mauka of Ala Moana Boulevard. Is it any wonder that OHA is challenging a discriminatory law that says Native Hawaiians cannot build residential units for Hawaiians and other local families on our side of the same street?” wrote OHA CEO Sylvia Hussey.

Concerted Campaign

Kakaako Makai comprises 221 acres stretching on the oceanside of Ala Moana Boulevard from the Ewa edge of Ala Moana Regional park to the beginning of the Foreign Trade Zone at Honolulu Harbor.

Other landowners in Kakaako Makai include the state and Kamehameha Schools, which owns parcels fronting Ala Moana Boulevard on the oceanside.

Opponents of OHA’s Hakuone plan say if the Legislature removes the residential restrictions to allow OHA to go forward it will open the door for Kamehameha Schools — the owner of four parcels on 11.8 acres on Kakaako makai –– to want similar freedom from the restrictions to build its own residential tower developments on the oceanside.

Ron Iwami
Community activist Ron Iwami opposes plans to develop the area with high rises. (Courtesy of Ron Iwami)

At an informational briefing Monday sponsored by Iwami’s group, speaker John Whalen suggested that OHA go back to the negotiating table with the state to get another parcel of state land easier and faster to develop with residential development permits already in place such as the Aloha Stadium Entertainment District. The district currently allows for mixed-use development including market and affordable housing, office and retail space and hotels. It is 70 acres, more than double the land OHA has at Kakaako.

“OHA deserves better than it got. There are so many restrictions on the Kakaako Makai land. It will be a very long slog to get the rights to develop there. Other state lands would offer OHA a better opportunity to meet its objectives,” Whalen said in a phone interview.

Whalen is a former HCDA board chairman and former director of Land Utilization for the City and County of Honolulu.

But Robbie Cabral, a consultant to OHA, said at a Feb. 8 state Senate hearing that the agency is not willing to give up on Kakaako. “The Hawaiian people have spoken they want these lands,” Cabral said.

The question now is will OHA’s intense campaign focusing on the Native Hawaiian right to build residential high rises work?

The first test will be Thursday when two Senate committees decide whether to give first-round approval to OHA’s request to lift the residential construction restrictions in all of Kakaako Makai and to repeal the restrictions that prohibit the sale of public land in the area.

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

What are we protecting other than NIMBY "view planes"? Looking at this area, it's a total dump. Once again, it's dump blighting the middle of our city, just like so many other places in the city. I would much rather see this space be park land and housing developments and mixed use rather than sitting there as an industrial wasteland. It would be entirely different if this was already a well established, beautiful recreation and mixed use space area for communities to gather. But it's not. And all the pseudo "environmentalists" come out of the woodworks to start talking about sea level rise when they had no concern for that when this area was established as a parking lot covered industrial dump. I don't buy it.

bmorestrong · 7 months ago

Mark my words- OHA will pivot their proposal to affordable housing + homeless housing (maybe Aloha Stadium site via trade swap) in order to quell all the naysayers. Political opposition will vanish, and developers/unions/carpenters/PRP/homeless advocates/native Hawaiians/renters/young voters will all celebrate. Everyone "wins", Honolulu population density increases even more, economic growth continues, tax collections increase, we as a society burn more fossil fuels and import more food/supplies while ironically & simultaneously increasing jobs, investment, & funding for mitigation of sea level rise.Because anyone and everyone has a right to live affordably in paradise. We don't know whether this was the plan all along, cleverly disguised by lobbyists, politicians, developers, & OHA itself.

luckyd · 7 months ago

The State government should NOT allow any construction near the beaches of our state. With global warming imminent, and the rising level of the ocean, all shoreline homes and buildings are in danger. Why build anything now, with this knowledge of the rising, encroachment of the ocean, which cannot be stopped?Besides, OHA agreed to accept Kakaako Makai, knowing the rules restricting construction of housing.

lariy · 7 months ago

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