Master planning for the lands at Kakaʻako Makai is a key organizational priority for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs
A Diamond in the Rough
Urban Honolulu is undergoing an exciting renaissance. The rows of industrial warehouses and parking lots that long checkered Kakaʻako are giving way to trendy eateries and shops. Young families who were able to become first-time homeowners because of area’s new residential towers are bringing fresh energy to a once dormant neighborhood.
In many ways, Kakaʻako Makai serves as the gateway to this new-look Honolulu. And Native Hawaiians hold the key to unlocking its potential.
The Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) owns 30 acres in Kakaʻako Makai, including all the waterfront parcels that are allowed to be developed. The lands sit on a former landfill and currently feature empty lots and rundown industrial structures – vestiges of yesteryear’s Kakaʻako.
With new leadership in place, OHA is recommitting its efforts to turn these parcels into the grand entrance that Honolulu’s revival deserves, while at the same time generating revenues sufficient to better address the needs of Native Hawaiians.
“A well-planned Kakaʻako Makai can serve to help stimulate Hawaiʻi’s economy; provide job opportunities for Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians; and contribute to the revitalization of Honolulu’s urban core,” explained Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey, who was voted chair of the OHA Board of Trustees in December.
“Development of our lands here will create a vibrant sense of place featuring entertainment, restaurants, and retail spaces for the public including locals and tourists alike. Enhancing surfing and ocean access, parking, and providing amenities to stakeholders, are solutions to garnering community support and forming effective partnerships,” she said.
One of the major challenges to developing OHA’s lands is the 2006 law prohibiting housing in Kakaʻako Makai.
“The ability to build housing will provide Native Hawaiians the freedom to develop this potential jewel right in the heart of Honolulu into something we can all be proud of, while at the same time creating financial self-sufficiency to generate revenue to lift up our people struggling in this economic crisis,” said Lindsey.
Lands with a Purpose
OHA acquired its ten Kakaʻako Makai parcels in a 2012 landmark settlement that represented the end of one of the longest running disputes related to the State of Hawaiʻi’s use of the Native Hawaiian people’s ancestral lands.
The vast majority of our ancestral lands controlled by the state were placed in the Public Land Trust at statehood. A condition of Hawaiʻi joining the union required that some portion of the Public Land Trust would be used to benefit Native Hawaiians. For decades, the actual amount owed to Native Hawaiians stemming from this legal obligation was heavily disputed. Although the 2012 settlement addressed the issue of Public Land Trust revenues owed to OHA from 1980-2012, the matter going forward remains unresolved.
After years of battles at the Legislature and in the courts, OHA and then-Gov. Linda Lingle struck an agreement in 2008 to resolve the past due revenues from the Public Land Trust owed to Native Hawaiians since 1978. They agreed that the debt was valued at $200 million and would be paid through the transfer of state lands to OHA. The proposed agreement, however, provided short-lived hope for a resolution to the issue. For four straight years, lawmakers refused to approve the proposed settlement. With no other recourse, OHA unsuccessfully sued the Legislature to compel it to act.
In 2012, then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie reached another agreement with OHA to resolve the debt. The proposal was to transfer 10 parcels in Kakaʻako Makai, valued at $200 million, to OHA.
Some legislators believed that Native Hawaiians deserved more and proposed amendments to the settlement to lift the existing residential prohibition on some of the Kakaʻako Makai lots.
But with lawmakers in disagreement over the amendments, OHA agreed to move the settlement forward with the residential prohibition on the parcels. OHA leadership said they would accept the lands, then conduct planning, and return in the future to have further discussions with the Legislature about the residential issue.
To fully appreciate the enormity of what happened in 2012, understanding the entire history of the Public Land Trust issue is key. For decades, every victory OHA achieved was accompanied by countless defeats and by 2012 the losses were egregious. There was no “better deal” at the time – or in the foreseeable future. Given the political landscape, OHA’s leadership determined that it was best to take the offered parcels to help address the immediate needs of our people.
OHA’s leadership proceeded to conduct their due diligence, including initiating master planning and consulting with land use experts, to determine what types of land use would work best for the organization – and community – in the long term.
After completing initial planning and analysis, OHA returned to the Legislature in 2014 to lift residential zoning prohibitions on several of its Kakaʻako Makai parcels. After this effort proved unsuccessful, OHA turned its attention to planning for a development without housing.
OHA CEO Dr. Sylvia Hussey said that what makes Kakaʻako Makai so special is what these lands represent. “These lands tell the story of Honolulu,” she said. “They retrace the mistakes we as a society made as natural resource stewards in filling a pristine reef and fishery with landfill. They remind us of the displacement years ago of the area’s community of the less fortunate. And today, they represent the resiliency of our people and how we can continue to fight for justice for the historical wrongs committed against us while at the same time exercising our self-determination by managing our lands to benefit our people.”
Hussey said that the lands at Kakaʻako Makai currently generate roughly $4.5 million in gross income and $3.2 million in net income. Twenty percent of gross profits go directly to fund OHA’s grants programs that support the needs of Native Hawaiians in areas such as education, housing, health and economic stability. Fifty percent of net profits help to mālama OHA’s legacy lands, such as the 511 acres of agricultural lands surrounding the Kūkaniloko birthing stones in Wahiawā, and Wao Kele o Puna on Hawaiʻi Island, one of the last lowland rainforests in Hawaiʻi.
Making a Fresh Start
Last year, OHA began to revisit its previous planning efforts for Kakaʻako Makai.
With new board and administrative leadership in place, and a drastically changing and challenging economic environment, OHA has vowed to make development of Kakaʻako Makai a top priority.
“Prohibiting Natives from building housing on their ancestral lands is an affront to the very principle of Indigenous self-determination.”
– Former Gov. John waiheʻe III
OHA’s vision for the area includes three major themes: create a kīpuka, a cultural oasis, where Hawaiian identity can flourish and be celebrated; create a bold and iconic development that will support a cultural marketplace that invests in intellectual capital and innovation in education, health and political leadership; and create a cohesive and multi-functional planned community that embraces a transformative ideal of live, work, and play.
“We have a vision to tell our story by weaving ʻŌiwi into our theme designs, development and activities,” said OHA Land Assets Director Kalani Fronda. “And by pursuing collaborations with seasoned developers, we will be able to create various streams of revenue sources.”
In January 2021, OHA trustees established a Commercial Properties Permitted Interaction Group to move forward with development planning on Kakaʻako Makai. The special subcommittee, chaired by Lindsey and project managed by Hussey, will examine policies and development strategies related to commercial land on Oʻahu.
Creation of the Permitted Interaction Group allows members to work more independently than a full board and more time to devote to moving targeted projects forward. Trustees Lei Ahu Isa, John Waihee IV and Kalei Akaka are also group members.
Ultimately, OHA’s goal is to steward its Kakaʻako Makai lands in a culturally responsible way that also creates the greatest value for our beneficiaries. OHA continues to explore all options and land-use scenarios to maximize revenues on these lands. But the agency’s planning efforts to date have determined that the residential prohibition on these lands prevents the agency from generating revenues consistent with a $200 million investment.
Therefore, OHA is again seeking legislation that would allow residential development on select parcels to allow the generation of revenues commensurate to the value of a $200 million investment. SB1334 would lift the residential prohibition on lots A, E, I, G/F and L, and provide for a 400-foot height limit – up from the current 200-foot limit – for lots E and I. As of press time, the bill had passed its first hearing in the Senate.
“This bill is about what is fair for Hawaiians,” said Hussey. “It’s about ensuring that Native Hawaiians have the same opportunity to develop our lands as our mauka neighbors are allowed on their lands.”
Former Gov. John Waihee III testified that by providing OHA greater freedom to decide how to manage their own lands to meet the needs of their people, the bill furthers the idea of Indigenous self-determination first envisioned when OHA was created four decades ago. “Prohibiting Natives from building housing on their ancestral lands is an affront to the very principle of Indigenous self-determination,” he wrote.
Regardless of whether the Legislature grants Native Hawaiians the same ability to build residential housing on OHA lands as landowners across Ala Moana Boulevard enjoy, OHA is moving forward with development of these prime lands. OHA’s intention is to submit a master plan to the Hawaiʻi Community Development Authority reflecting a best-case scenario as approved by its Board of Trustees.
Lindsey said that the opportunity to develop the lands at Kakaʻako Makai is an opportunity that cannot be delayed any further.
“Our goal is to make near and long-term progress,” Lindsey emphasized. “We will make progress on parcels that are ready for immediate movement while we look to overcome challenges with other parcels. We are not going to let the challenges that slowed our progress in the past stop us from moving forward. We want to develop a project that represents our culture, makes our people proud, and serves as a welcoming gateway for a revitalized urban Honolulu.”
To learn more about OHA’s efforts in Kakaʻako Makai, please visit www.oha.org/kakaakomakai2021