The City Council is considering a bill that would expand the number of mixed-use districts in Honolulu amid a worsening housing crisis.

Landlords would be allowed to create apartments in business-zoned areas like Kapahulu Street, Kaimuki and Kapolei under a bill seeking to amend Honolulu’s land use ordinance.

The proposal represents the latest example of officials gradually moving Honolulu toward having more mixed-use districts in which residences and businesses exist side by side. It comes as the city seeks new ways to provide affordable housing for residents who are struggling with exorbitant rents and home prices.

Council member Esther Kiaaina is planning to also broach the idea of expanding the scope of the measure to include Central Oahu, encompassing Waipahu to Wahiawa. 

“We want to identify opportunities for housing development that we don’t have now,” Kiaaina’s chief of staff Jocelyn Doane said. But she stressed the need for balance “to ensure that we’re not completely eliminating all business districts.”

Kaimuki’s Waialae Avenue is a hub for local businesses. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2024)

The proposal to allow more family housing in business-zoned areas came from the Department of Planning and Permitting.

It sits in the same category of proposals as converting empty office space to housing and easing development restrictions around rail stations with the hope of promoting walkable communities.

DPP spokesman Curtis Lum declined an interview but referred to the department’s August 2022 letter in support of changes that would allow more mixed-use districts, specifically with the goal of increasing Oahu’s housing supply.

Ground Floor Or Above

Mixed-use districts often have businesses on the ground floor with housing above them. An earlier version of the bill would have prohibited housing on the ground floor. But the proposed amendment gives a choice — either housing must be above the ground floor, or the building lot must surpass some minimum, to-be-determined threshold of business use.

Imagine a 7-Eleven sharing a lot with a three-story apartment building. That would be allowed in business districts under the current amendment.

“I think it provides obviously additional housing, which we need, but also, it’s good to have this live-work feel.”

Kaimuki resident Brian Kang

Developers reached out to DPP in 2022 and said that they could build more housing without that ground floor ban, especially on undeveloped lots outside of urban Honolulu. DPP’s letter that year emphasized this point, citing data from the developers D.R. Horton and Colliers that showed the change would increase the potential for new housing on the lots from 35,000 new units to 55,000 new units.

Honolulu’s business districts generally prohibit residences under current law. The proposed bill and amendments would allow multi-family housing while requiring a minimum, to-be-determined amount of nonresidential use.

An amendment would limit how much housing is permitted in business zones to make sure businesses aren’t crowded out.

The scope of this change would be limited to the regions expected to take on most of the long-term population growth, including a stretch between Pearl City to Kahala on Oahu’s South Shore as well as the Ewa Plain.

Wahiawa Central Oahu Aerial.
Much of Wahiawa’s business district is zoned in a way that doesn’t allow for housing. That could change with the Land Use Ordinance overhaul. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018)

It’s difficult to quantify the extent of the areas that would be affected. A map of Honolulu’s zoning designations looks more like a quirky, irregular jigsaw puzzle than a checkerboard of evenly spaced districts.

Areas zoned for business are somewhat scattered, including Kapahulu Street, most of Kaimuki’s Waialae Avenue and large portions of Kapolei surrounding H-1 out to Kamaaha Avenue.

The need for a large overhaul to Honolulu’s land use ordinance was first discussed during the second half of 2022 and spring of 2023. Many people testified in opposition, saying that even if they agreed with specific changes, the almost 250 page omnibus was too comprehensive for the public to meaningfully grasp.

A Revived Land Use Overhaul

The land use ordinance controls everything from how many beehives a beekeeper needs to be keeping, where daycare centers can go and whether convenience stores can have drive-thrus. It’s why cemeteries can only have one dwelling unit for caretakers. 

Bill 64 is essentially a new version of Bill 10 from 2022. Kiaaina introduced the new measure in November 2023 with the intention of holding separate hearings for each category of land use.

Industrial use and commercial use categories were discussed last spring. Residential use is up for discussion Thursday at a meeting with the City Council’s planning and the economy committee at Honolulu Hale. Pending topics for future months include public, civic and institutional use, agricultural use and miscellaneous.

Currently, the only residences allowed in business districts are consulates for foreign governments, along with dwelling units designated for caretakers or owners that are regulated as “special accessory dwellings.”

Expanding that to allow for multi-family housing, like apartments, could seismically change these districts.

The bill would require a minimum amount of space designated for nonresidential use: 10,000 square feet or 40,000 square feet under the bill’s current draft, depending on overall acreage, or even a constant ratio of 20% of floor area. These numbers are not yet solidified though.

“If you look at specific amendments, she has both of those options blank because she wants the public to weigh in,” said Doane, Kiaaina’s chief of staff. 

‘The Devil Is In The Details’

Kaimuki’s business artery Waialae Avenue, which features businesses like the liquor and poke store Tamura’s, Chinese seafood restaurant Happy Days and coffee shop The Curb, is one of the areas that would be opened up to housing.

“Generally, I’m supportive of the concept,” said Kaimuki resident Brian Kang, who chairs the area’s neighborhood board but emphasized that he was only speaking for himself.

“I think it provides obviously additional housing, which we need, but also, it’s good to have this live-work feel,” he said. 

The extra foot traffic would be good, said Kang, though “the devil is in the details.”

Car traffic and parking requirements would need to be considered, he said, adding that he would like Waialae to remain primarily commercial.

Arleen Velasco, vice chair of that Diamond Head-Kapahulu neighborhood board said Kapahulu Avenue could use some revitalization and allowing a few residents to live above the businesses could be a step in the right direction.

Honolulu City Council member Esther Kiaaina speaks to staff before meeting.
Council member Esther Kiaaina is leading discussions over the next few months on an overhaul of the land use ordinance. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

“I’ve seen it successfully revive a downtown area,” Velasco said, referring to a similar effort in her former home of San Diego. She’s fine with residences as long as they aren’t in taller buildings that could threaten view planes and dwarf the smaller existing structures.

Sterling Higa, executive director of Housing Hawaii’s Future, a movement to create housing opportunities for Hawaii’s next generation, said mixed-use districts are a great solution.

“If you go to the great cities of the world – London, Paris, Tokyo – in their mixed-use districts, you can find interesting things every block,” Higa said. “A single block that doesn’t have any interesting ground-floor uses can really disrupt the walkability and the continuity of these mixed-use districts.”

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