In late January, OHA executives learned that a group of legislators were introducing a bill during the 2021 legislative session that would affect OHA’s commercial properties in Kakaʻako Makai by raising the building height limit for two of OHA’s 10 parcels and lifting the current restriction against residential development on six of OHA’s parcels.
The introduction of Senate Bill 1334 generated hope that OHA might finally be able to realize its vision of using its land at Kakaʻako Makai to create a distinctly Hawaiian multi-use residential and business development adjacent to the City and County of Honolulu’s beautiful Gateway and Waterfront parks.
OHA acquired its Kakaʻako Makai land during the 2012 legislative session, when the State of Hawaiʻi offered to settle its 32-year past-due debt to OHA – a debt of approximately $200 million – by conveying 30 acres of land in Kakaʻako Makai to the agency.
Ironically, the state’s appraiser valued the land at approximately $198 million, assuming a 400-foot height limit for two of the parcels on Ala Moana Blvd.
The only catch was that six years earlier, in 2006, this same legislative body had voted to prohibit residential development in Kakaʻako Makai and to impose a 200-foot height limit. Thus, the state’s generous “settlement” came with restrictions that prevent OHA from actually realizing the promised value of the land.
It’s like paying half the debt with cash, and the other half with Monopoly money.
Because of these restrictions, some reasonably questioned OHA’s wisdom in accepting the Kakaʻako Makai parcels as settlement of the state’s debt which was accrued over three decades as a result of the state’s failure to provide OHA with its fair share of Public Land Trust revenues. However, it was a “take it or leave it” situation because after more than three decades of begging at the legislature, this was the state’s only offer to Native Hawaiians.
It should be noted that, by Hawaiʻi State law, 20% of Public Land Trust revenues go to OHA; and in the 40 years since the law was codified in 1980, it has never been honored by the state.
Testifying in support of SB 1334 before a joint hearing of the Senate Ways and Means, Water and Land, and Judiciary committees on March 3, former Gov. John Waiheʻe said, “When Hawaiʻi joined the Union in 1959, we did so with a promise to Native Hawaiians that their ancestral lands, which were stolen at gunpoint, would be administered in such a way that specifically benefited them. Unfortunately, the history of the state implementing this legal obligation to Native Hawaiians is a long series of broken promises – despite numerous efforts over the years to rectify the issue.”
On March 9, an overwhelming majority of the Senate voted to pass the bill, with 19 yes votes, six no votes, and one reservation, enabling it to cross over to the House.
In a passionate speech on the floor of the Senate, one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole, made it a point to mention that the Hawaiʻi State Attorney General has clarified that OHA’s Kakaʻako Makai lands are Native Hawaiian trust assets, not public lands as opponents have claimed.
Sen. Keohokalole said he was supporting the bill because Honolulu needs housing for its residents near jobs, infrastructure and the rail line. He went on to say that while the residential prohibition on development at Kakaʻako Makai may have made sense in 2006, it no longer does; there is a projected housing shortage in Hawaiʻi of about 65,000 units, and the state’s failure to address the housing crisis adversely affects the credibility of the legislature.
“We have no credibility to the young families, who constantly check Craigslist for rentals in my district, and can’t see any whole home rental offerings on the Windward side for under $3,500 a month,” said Sen. Keohokalole. “Or the young families who are trying to figure out a way to put together a down payment on a $900,000 offering, of which at any given point there are less than 200 for sale on the island of Oʻahu.”
But OHA’s jubilance over the senate vote was short-lived. Six days later, on March 15, leaders in the House of Representatives decided unilaterally that they would not hear the bill at all.
In remarks to opponents of SB 1334 who gathered for a “Save Our Kakaʻako Makai Rally” held at the State Capitol on March 16, House Speaker Rep. Scott Saiki said that he had advised OHA Board of Trustees Chairperson Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey that the House would not advance SB 1334.
“There is not a compelling reason for the legislature to reverse this prohibition,” said Rep. Saiki. “Some will say that I oppose S.B. 1334 because Kakaʻako Makai is a part of my House district. This is not accurate. The issue here is larger than one person’s House district.”
“Kakaʻako Makai is the last remaining parcel of viable open space between Waikīkī and the airport,” continued Rep. Saiki. “Preventing residential development will prevent uncontrolled development and preserve this open space for the next generation and the next-next generation.”
He concluded his remarks noting that he and Sen. Sharon Moriwaki (who also represents Kakaʻako) will “attempt to work with OHA to explore alternatives to developing Kakaʻako Makai.”
It should be noted that Sen. Moriwaki was one of the six senators who opposed SB 1334.
In response, Lindsey offered the following public statement:
“OHA is deeply disappointed that a bill that would allow Native Hawaiians to develop housing in Kakaʻako Makai appears to be dead. We are saddened that Native Hawaiians were robbed of an opportunity to have their voices heard in a single hearing in the House of Representatives.
“Nevertheless, we remain steadfast. We understand that the pursuit of justice and self-determination for Native Hawaiians continues to be a challenge. We will now turn our attention to finishing our planning efforts. We hope that our progress over the next year will demonstrate that a Native Hawaiian vision for Kakaʻako Makai is something that the entire state will support. We look forward to coming back to the Legislature again next year to continue the discussion of allowing Native Hawaiians to build housing on our lands.
“OHA thanks our friends in the Senate for providing Native Hawaiians with a fair chance to make our case. In addition, we thank our growing number of supporters within the Native Hawaiian community and the broader public.”
For more information on OHA’s plans to develop its commercial properties at Kakaʻako Makai please visit www.oha.org/kakaakomakai2021.