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Competing visions for Kakaʻako

Most recent Kakaʻako town hall shows continued division between stakeholders.

The latest episode of the Kakaʻako development saga took place last Thursday, May 22, with the unveiling of a 3D scale model of a post-development Kakaʻako, accompanied by yet another town hall meeting of architects, city planners and community members. The meeting will be broadcast on ʻŌlelo Channel 54 on June 7 at 6 p.m., June 8 at 10 a.m., June 14 at 6 a.m. and June 20 at 2:30 p.m.

The meeting began with a presentation from a panel of architects and planners. First was John Whalen of Plan Pacific Inc., who gave a historical context to contemporary development of Kakaʻako within the circle of Western architects. Reaching back into the 1930s, he described the changing concepts of Honolulu, from the perspective of architects and city planners, who often either saw Honolulu as a haphazard undergrowth or as a place of great potential. He also reviewed the birth of the Hawaii Community Development Authority (HCDA) in the 1970s and the districting that led to the Mauka Area Rules and Plans so hotly debated today.

Bringing the discussion into the present situation was Anthony Ching, the Executive Director of HCDA—a familiar face at discussions concerning Kakaʻako. Ching elaborated on the Authority’s Mauka Area Rules and Plans, introducing the buzzword for the night: “urban village,” and posing the question of, “how do you bring people together?”

Ching advocated for a “pedestrian-oriented development” among connected and mixed use neighborhoods. He emphasized the “form-based code” of Kakaʻako planning, which is unique for not segregating strictly based on usage. Instead the code places higher value on the physical environment and the forms of the landscape. Of Kakaʻako’s handful of neighborhoods, he demonstrated the factors at play in the settlement to create an “active street-scape.”

Explaining the rules for each neighborhood, he detailed the many factors such as frontage type, height, permission to sell alcohol, residential demographic, etc. He also emphasized the obligation to protect public spaces and “view corridors,” and the Public Facility Dedication Requirement that exacts support for public facilities. He concluded his presentation by saying, “it should be easy to see and understand how the form will conform to the rule.”

The last of the official panelists was Andrew Tang, a member of the American Institute of Architects, which hosted the town hall at its facility. Tang advocated for a highly-compact development to accommodate the growing population and continuing urban sprawl; but equally important is the need to negotiate the many initiatives to develop Kakaʻako with a coherent vision. Drawing on his personal experience in Europe, he painted a subjective vision of Kakaʻako, idealizing a Kakaʻako development that would emulate what he experienced in Amsterdam.

“Biking to an open market to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, bumping into a friend, and most likely having a drink and then spontaneously having a dinner party,” he postulated.

Importing this certain, culturally-specific and elite lifestyle, Tang then moved the discussion away from creating an urban space to constructing an ideal urban lifestyle. He ended his presentation with a graphic of the Chicago skyline superimposed on an image of Honolulu, explaining how Chicago, “creates this skyline that everyone is proud of and is on every post card.”

“Anything about us, without us, isn’t for us.”

However, individuals and representatives of community organizations then presented their own visions of Kakaʻako. Ralph Portmore, a fellow at the American Institute of Certified Planners, quoted writing on an abandoned building of the ninth ward in New Orleans: “anything about us, without us, isn’t for us.” Without explication, this conclusion to his comments was met with nods and hums of agreement.

Portmore also highlighted the need for workforce and low-income housing, questioning why the city is not supplying housing for this demographic. He called on the panel to channel community involvement: “We’ve created all this energy, all this interest now; what we need is a mechanism where we can constructively get those people involved.”

Throughout the session, developers and architects focused on correcting a community. They tried to address “common misconceptions” of the public, “apologize[ed] to the professionals in the room,” and proposed “better questions,” than those circulating in the community. As Andrew Tang commented on the public’s concern over height limits, “The better question, I would propose, is how should we be using height and density to create better, liveable, and attractive urban spaces to accommodate the growth and need.” He countered the concerns of the public with his assertion that his “better questions” can yield “better answers.”

Among the community voices, an anonymous representative of the Downtown Neighborhood Board questioned the developers’ definition of a park and green space, so heavily emphasized in their pitch. Citing the current state of Kakaʻako, she said that there are officially about 50 parks, which neither her nor other volunteers could find. That is, until they discovered that a park can be defined as a strip of grass along a sidewalk. She also voiced the concern over maintaining the historical character of Kewalo Basin as a public place where small boats harbor minutes after it was mentioned that Howard Hughes Corporation is seeking exclusive ownership of Kewalo Basin.

Another prevailing theme during the community voices segment was stated best by Portmore, who said, “we’ve done the talk, but now we need to do the walk.” Donald Goo of the Whisenand, Allison, Tong and Goo (WATG) architectural firm called for discussion about how to stimulate dynamism among the projected increase of 30,000 people within the district. Shaded walkways, promenades and pedestrian bridges studded with shops were among his proposals to incentivise active usage and participation in new Kakaʻako

As the meeting cleared out, a gentleman could be overheard saying, “people in Hawaiʻi are afraid of change.” But as the panelists themselves stated, by acreage alone this urban development project is larger than any other in countries like the U.S. The anxiety surrounding this project and fermenting between community and developer are expected symptoms of such an ambitious task. Yet members of the public are wary of the forces at work, with another audience member quietly remarking that, “these architects work for the developers, after all.”

The word “development” is a loaded one, involving many personal aspirations, experiences and the collision of private and public interests. Development of Kakaʻako has implications not just for Honolulu, but all of Oʻahu. These anxieties and tensions could even allude to wider conflicts of how, by whom, and for whom we should be building and envisioning a future for Hawaiʻi.