Mayor reveals plans to accelerate permitting and development during State of the City.

Turning the corner to a reelection run in 2024, Mayor Rick Blangiardi laid out a transformational and likely controversial path forward for Honolulu in his third annual State of the City speech Tuesday.

He proposed a number of sweeping reorganization proposals, including splitting the troubled Department of Planning and Permitting into two separate divisions and similarly dividing the Emergency Medical Services and Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services into separate agencies.

He also unveiled plans to create a new “rocket docket” system for building approvals that will speed development but potentially reduce the ability of the community to review or impede construction projects.

Blangiardi’s top campaign issue has been escalating efforts to build affordable housing. Much is underway already.

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi delivered his third State of the City address before a livestream by Hawaii News Now. (Screenshot/Hawaii News Now)

He announced that more than 2,200 low-cost housing units have been recently completed and are being rehabilitated, planned or constructed, a major advance in that direction.

This includes 500 units purchased with private activity bonds in Chinatown and Waipahu, 155 units of senior housing to be completed this fall, also in Chinatown, and about 200 to be built in Royal Kunia at the former Kunia Box Car Lot.

Blangiardi wants to step up the pace at DPP, where projects take nearly a year on average for approval by an understaffed and overwhelmed department.

To further stimulate housing construction, Blangiardi proposed dramatic changes to the development process, including an increasingly automated permit review, allowing outside contractors to review building plans rather than relying on city staff. He would also allow builders to “self-certify” that their building plans meet city construction requirements.

Some of these ideas have had mixed outcomes in the past. Self-certification, or self regulation, is a concept that was popular in the Reagan administration but was later recognized as having problematic results. Outside permit reviews have been tried in the past and resulted in electrical system failures and health and safety concerns, according to former DPP chief Dean Uchida, KITV reported.

The self-certification process has been introduced in the Honolulu City Council as Bill 6.

City officials also plan to introduce legislation that would allow developers to begin their projects while the permits are being processed, rather than waiting until they have been issued.

Reorganizing Housing And Homelessness Programs

Blangiardi announced he has hired Denise Iseri-Matsubara, the executive director of the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp., as the new director of the city’s Office of Housing and Homelessness. He said Iseri-Matsubara’s experience at HHFDC would permit better alignment of city and state housing policy. The mayor said he is authorizing her under his charter authority to consider ways to reorganize the city’s housing and homeless programs.

Denise Iseri-Matsubara, was named new director of the city’s Office of Housing and Homelessness. (Hawaii News Now)

Iseri-Matsubara is the official most closely associated with the state’s 201H program, which gives city officials 45 days to approve, modify or deny proposals that have been approved by the HHFDC. That state program has attracted criticism recently, including from some area residents after it was used to expedite approval of a 43-story high-rise residential tower at 2599 Kapiolani Ave.

She would also play a key role in determining whether the planning and permitting functions of DPP would be more efficient if they were separated, he said.

The mayor said his goal is to “enact systemic change.”

Blangiardi said he plans to expand the Crisis Outreach Response and Engagement program, increasing the 20-member staff to 50. It deploys medical technicians and community health workers to provide services to the homeless population.

“Dealing with homelessness is no small challenge for CORE, but as I have repeatedly said, a street is not a home — not for anyone and especially not for children,” he said. “Candidly, it is my strong belief that it is our moral responsibility to take this challenge head on.”

In addition to the CORE program, the  administration has also recently unveiled plans to build two or three tiny-home villages to house homeless people. The locations of these new communities have not yet been announced.

In the transportation area, Blangiardi said he intends to install traffic cameras and connected traffic signals to reduce congestion, particularly where it is needed, in West Oahu.

He said that the city’s rail system will start running in July, operating a 20-minute trip from East Kapolei to Aloha Stadium, where express buses will be awaiting each train to take passengers to their final destinations downtown or to the University of Hawaii Manoa.

City buses, meanwhile, are being increasingly converted to an electric fleet, with 39 electric buses on order to pair with the 17 already in operation, with overall service becoming “quieter, cooler, 100% emission-free and five times more efficient in terms of mileage output,” he said.

Blangiardi said initial operation of the light rail system would begin in July. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

EMS Under Duress, Mayor Says

The mayor’s public safety initiatives include trying to identify criminal wrongdoers more effectively by pushing the Legislature to enact House Bill 100, which would create a common criminal justice information repository for the state and county governments.

Blangiardi observed it was “simply amazing” that the city and state have gone so long without the ability to share criminal justice data.

He said that creating that common data portal would help create what he called “a unified system that has zero-tolerance for criminal acts that threaten the well-being and physical safety of law-abiding citizens.”

He acknowledged that the Emergency Medical System is under extreme duress, having received nearly 130,000 911 calls last year, with ambulance crews responding to more than 85,000 medical emergencies. He said he met recently with five senior paramedics to discuss conditions in the field, and he described the department as operating under “incredible strain.”

Blangiardi says allowing builders more flexibility in the permitting process will accelerate the issuing of permits. (Hawaii News Now)

The city continues to struggle with a high vacancy rate in its job ranks, the mayor said. He said progress is being made, with monthly hires up 43% over last year, and the average hiring time falling 25%.

But the city isn’t yet making much headway in getting to full employment, as many department heads made clear to members of the city council last week during budget hearings, in response to persistent questions by council members. They said that while they were steadily recruiting, low wages for some jobs make it hard to find good candidates and that older workers are continuing to retire at high levels.

In fact, the vacancy rate has climbed from about 3,000 openings in June to 3,300 today, according to Nola Miyasaki, director of the city’s department of human resources.

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