City’s planning department blamed for violating faith in the laws meant to protect Waikiki Beach

Environmental groups see hope in fighting Kyo-ya development with new City leadership

Beth-Ann Kozlovich

with Beth-Ann Kozlovich

HONOLULU—For 35 years, development in Waikiki has operated under zoning laws curtailing the height of buildings while providing a specified setback along the beachfront. Although laws were amended 15 years ago, none of the changes would allow for the variance granted late last year to Kyo-Ya Hotels and Resorts to build a 26-story tower where the Moana’s Diamond Head tower now sits, according to a coalition of environmental groups. Last week they collectively filed an appeal to the decision by the City and County of Honolulu’s Department of Planning and Permitting (DPP).

To read the coalition’s appeal to the DPP, click here

Marti Townsend, an attorney and program director at KAHEA, a small non-profit group working with communities to protect Hawaii’s natural and cultural resources, believes the central issue is that the DPP has violated the faith in the laws that were designed to regulate Waikiki’s development over time.

“These laws were meant to protect the character and quality of Waikiki Beach and to ensure that this shoreline is perpetuated for generations,” Townsend says, “not just for our visitors, but for our families who live here.”

Patrick Onishi, a past director of the City’s Department of Land Utilization and Planning Department (now both part of DPP), says the organizations’ concerns were the reasons the laws were put into place—none of the subsequent changes to the laws translate to the results the variance would allow.

“At no time were we ever thinking of compromising the coastal height setbacks, which have been the basis of what Kyo-ya has pursued,” says Onishi, a practicing architect and now also a part-time faculty member of the University of Hawaii School of Architecture’s Community Design and Sustainable Research Program. The variance, he says, “calls into question if the decision considered all of the facts and intent of the ordinance currently in place.”

“We’ve had a failure of the planning department basically because of some high level political pressure that has been pushing the planning department.”

For its part, Kyo-ya has argued it had been denied reasonable use of its property. The company says the Moana property meets the tests of hardship and that the company did its homework: It sought public input and completed an Environmental Impact Statement. Moreover, the company says the new tower will provide a luxury residence and hotel facility economically beneficial to tourism and appealing to more sophisticated visitors. Kyo-ya says the plans will also create construction jobs to an industry which needs them.

To read Kyo-ya’s position statement, click here

The Honolulu chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) opposes the variance. AIA has argued that there are three tests of hardship and in its opinion, none is fulfilled. Scott Wilson, AIA board member and acting-Chair of the AIA Honolulu Regional and Urban Design Committee, says the variance is an outgrowth of the problem the organization has with the process by which the variance was granted.

“The AIA has taken a stance against the planned development resort (PDR) approval, and the variance, based on the hardship test number 3,” Wilson explains, “that approval of the variance is not contrary to the intent of the underlying ordinance—the Waikiki Special District. The fundamental intent of the Waikiki Special District is the preservation of Waikiki Beach as a public open space.”

Onishi also believes the claim of hardship based on the uniqueness of the property is also unmet.

“The City charter is very clear as to what the test of hardship needs to be,” Onishi says. “They talk about uniqueness in the context that if in the case of the variance, that the granting of variance will not call into the question the zoning code as it applies to other properties. And in this particular case, it is not unique because it does share many of the qualities of abutting properties along that portion of Waikiki beach.”

Wilson says there were two stages of the project that confused the public last year: when the PDR was approved and later when the variance was granted. The first mistake, he says, was the approval of the PDR in September of 2010.

“The PDR has been abused in our view,” Wilson says. “It was the foot in the door. [DPP] staff planners should have been aware of the history of the Waikiki Special District. The PDR was never to allow any kind of alteration of coastal height setback and the coastal setback. The variance is a follow-on. The variance is forced because the City Council allowed the project to proceed and lo-and-behold it’s encroaching into all of the setbacks.”

That’s why the company had to seek the variance.

To see a map of the Diamond Head tower variance, click here

The AIA is in agreement that Waikiki is a dynamic market and needs to renovate, but Wilson says that’s possible with the existing Diamond Head tower. Wilson is also concerned about the precedent the variance sets for other Waikiki properties and for the state.

“All of our islands have a coastline and it is an extremely precious public resource,” Wilson says. “If we approve a variance for a huge encroachment into a public beach, and, in this case, the most famous public beach in all our state, what kind of a precedent does that set for all the beaches on all the islands?”

Townsend and Wilson also caution that Hawaii residents should understand it’s not just Kyo-ya’s face of the project that is advancing its cause; it’s also the effects of absentee ownership, in this case by the New York based Cerberus Partners, for whom Townsend says quality of life enjoyment by local residents is far outweighed by bottom line profits.

“We rely on the City to protect the people who live here,” Townsend says. “People who come to do business in Hawaii need to abide by our rules.”

Both Townsend and Wilson agree there is still wiggle room left to make a difference in whether the variance will stand.

“This is fundamentally a political problem,” says Wilson. “We’ve had a failure of the planning department basically because of some high level political pressure that has been pushing the planning department.”

With the change in City Council and mayoral leadership and with further public discussion, there is a chance for more thoughtful consideration. It may be an uphill battle, says Townsend, but without it, it will be all downhill for the Waikiki shoreline and, especially, the residents who enjoy it.

The appeal to the variance is now with the Zoning Board of Appeals.

The full interview with Marti Townsend, Patrick Onishi, and Scott Wilson is on the Town Square archive at If you have an idea for a Town Square discussion, reach Beth-Ann Kozlovich at [email protected]