Before Fisherman’s Wharf, Kewalo Basin, and Ward Centre, the region known today as Kakaʻako had a rich and colorful history.
By Ryan Kawailani Ozawa
For centuries, Kakaʻako was a land rich in natural resources and cultural significance. The mix of steel and glass towers and industrial yards of today stand in stark contrast to the area’s longstanding stature and significance at the heart of Honolulu.
Kakaʻako is in the moku (district) of Kona, in the ahupuaʻa (land division) of Waikīkī, and along the coastal edge of the neighboring ʻili (smaller land divisions) of Kaʻākaukukui to the west and Kukuluāeʻo to the east. The area was nurtured by two inland freshwater springs, Kewalo and Kawaiahaʻo.
Like most of the vast plains of Honolulu, the region was home to extensive wetlands that sustained abundant agricultural production. Kakaʻako’s lowland marshes and wetlands included loʻi kalo (taro fields), salt pans, and fishponds. Asian settlers that followed added rice to the crops raised in the area.
Kakaʻako began to transform in the 1800s. After the Māhele of 1848 ushered in land privatization across the pae ʻāina, Kakaʻako land was parceled out as accelerating commerce demanded massive dredging projects to open up harbors, wharves, and piers. Even as the land was in flux, the area housed a smallpox quarantine camp, a hospital for Hansen’s disease patients, and historic Honolulu Fort and Fort Armstrong.
After the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, the provisional government fixed its sights on Honolulu’s sprawling wetlands, declaring them a “health hazard,” and demanding they be drained. As Waikīkī coalesced into a tourist destination, taro and rice fields were displaced by massive in-fill, dredged and hauled in from points east as Ala Moana Boulevard changed from a shoreline road to an inland thoroughfare.
Kakaʻako soon became a dumping ground for rapidly growing Honolulu. The first city garbage dump and incinerator was established along the waterfront, and the resulting ash was added to the in-fill that obliterated the wetlands and fishponds. The Kaʻākaukukui seawall in Kewalo Basin became the shoreline for 29 acres of new “land,” some of which hosted a garbage dump and incinerator (dubbed “Swillauea”) in 1930.
Calling Kakaʻako Home
As sustainable small farms were replaced by corporate sugar and pineapple plantations, and streams were diverted, thousands of Native Hawaiian farmers and other agricultural workers were displaced. Many relocated to Kakaʻako on the outskirts of prosperous Honolulu.
The early 20th-century residents of Kakaʻako were mostly Hawaiian but also included Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Portuguese, living in scattered, sprawling camps and tenements, often working for the area’s industrial employers in factories and ports. Despite humble beginnings, Kakaʻako grew into a thriving, multiethnic, working-class neighborhood. Native Hawaiians claimed the shoreline, fishing and farming seaweed. Japanese households built ofuro, or outdoor baths, and shared them with neighbors. Children would crowd the docks at Honolulu Harbor and dive for coins thrown overboard by tourists on ships. There was a bustling, sometimes rough-and-tumble nightlife.
The Industrial Reboot
The 1950s, fueled by rising land prices, the territorial government rezoned Kakaʻako as an industrial area. Thousands of residents were driven out, their homes and businesses cleared to make way for warehouses, factories, and marine and automotive shops. Despite the population of Oʻahu doubling over the next two decades, Kakaʻako retained its industrial zoning.
By the 1970s, civic leaders and city planners recognized that the housing supply had not kept up with the massive increase in demand. It was then that Kakaʻako was seen as a potential residential hub, sitting between downtown Honolulu and Waikīkī. The area’s principal landowners – Kamehameha Schools Bishop Estate, Ward Estate, and Dillingham Corporation – were very willing to discuss a transition from deteriorating industrial lots to high-return housing. At the time, less than 2% of Kakaʻako land was zoned for residential use.
The 1976 legislature passed Act 150, designating Kakaʻako as a special development district and creating the Hawaiʻi Community Development Authority (HCDA). Central to the HCDA charter was ensuring the availability of housing and, from the beginning, its policies called for a minimum number of units for low-income and working-class families.
More of the Same
As land values continued to skyrocket, developers balked at the HCDA’s initial priorities. Even residents were turned off by the stigma of public housing. When HCDA released its first comprehensive Kakaʻako development plan, affordable residential units were not included. HCDA realigned itself to favor profit and investment return and described a Kakaʻako of prestigious high-rise condos along a glistening modern waterfront.
This vision of a high-end Honolulu enclave was not a new one. There were already other luxury condo towers along the south shore. The findings of the Environmental Impact Statement for HCDA’s plan, then, were not surprising: the nascent working class Kakaʻako neighborhood would be replaced by high-end residences housing the wealthy, many from outside of Hawaiʻi.
However, this upscale vision failed to materialize as several ambitious master plans ran up against ill-timed downturns in the local and global economy.
The Next Master Plan
In 2002, Chicago-based General Growth Properties (owner of Ala Moana Center) acquired the Victoria Ward Estate’s 64 acres of land and announced “Ward Neighborhood,” which would have 4,300 residential units across 20 buildings – 860 at “reduced” rents or prices. The 2007-2008 global financial crisis and the bankruptcy of General Growth in 2009 ended those plans.
Three years later, Howard Hughes Corporation, a General Growth spinoff firm, unveiled its modified master plan for “Ward Village.” Concurrently, Kamehameha Schools unveiled its “Our Kakaʻako” master plan with residential and commercial properties. Alexander & Baldwin proposed two condominium towers at Kewalo Harbor, whipping up a flurry of opposition, which led the 2006 legislature to prohibit residential development in the area.
The Last Chapter
In 2012, the state was finally coming to terms with its immense debt to the Hawaiian people over the use of ceded lands – restitution for which was written into the Hawaiʻi State Constitution. The legislature proposed a partial settlement to OHA: 30 acres of land in Kakaʻako Makai, ostensibly worth $200 million.
During the legislative process, it was understood both by lawmakers and OHA that it was an incomplete deal. The restriction on residential development diminished the property’s value by more than 50% and was supposed to be revisited in a future session.
The first attempt was made during the 2014 legislative session, but OHA was denied.
The next attempt was in 2021 when SB1334 was introduced. The bill passed through the Senate but died after the House refused to hear the bill.
The Next Chapter
Hakuone, the name given to OHA’s lands at Kakaʻako Makai, simultaneously represents the past and future of Hawaiʻi. It is visualized as a welcoming kīpuka where Native Hawaiian culture and values can be celebrated and perpetuated. But to become a truly local community, local people must be allowed to live there – and be able to afford to live there.
By offering a range of housing options focusing primarily on affordable and workforce housing, Hakuone can be a true home to Hawaiʻi’s people and contribute to the lifeblood of OHA’s mission: the betterment of the conditions of Native Hawaiians in education, health, housing, and economic development by strengthening our ʻohana, moʻomeheu (culture), and ʻāina.
This article includes research from “Kakaʻako Makai” (2012) by Holly K. Coleman for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs Research Division and “Placemaking and the Gentrification of Kakaʻako: Exploring Alternative Pathways for Sustainable Futures” (2020) by Justin Menina.