Kakaʻako Makai – Back to the Drawing Board

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Leina‘ala Ahu Isa, Ph.D., Trustee, At-Large

Welina! Aloha mai kākou! I have invited former OHA Trustee Peter Apo, who is very knowledgeable about this month’s topic, to write this column in my stead. Mahalo nui, Peter!

In 2012, after 31 years of brokering, the Legislature approved, and OHA accepted, a land-instead-of-cash settlement offer proposed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie. The State of Hawaiʻi owed OHA $200 million dollars as back payment for OHA’s entitlement to 20% of annual ceded land lease revenues collected by the state. $200 million was the value assigned to 10 parcels totaling 30 acres of coastal lands, collectively referred to as Kakaʻako Makai.

Photo: Peter Apo

Kakaʻako Makai has long been a subject of public controversy in terms of how these lands are to be used.

Prior to the 2012 settlement and OHA’s assumption of the 30 acres, a formal planning process driven by the Hawaiʻi Community Development Authority (HCDA) was completed via the establishment of the Kakaʻako Community Planning Advisory Council.

A significant number of community voices were raised whose voices yielded a conceptual master plan that waved red flags as to the degree of highest and best use commercial development that might be tolerated.

The OHA settlement caught everyone by surprise and triggered a back-to-the-drawing-board discussion.

OHA has a fiduciary duty to its beneficiaries to realize the cash equivalent of the $200 million land settlement. As a beneficiary-driven trust, the question then emerged as to what degree OHA might, or should, feel a responsibility to accommodate the voices of the broader community in determining the fate of these of coastal lands if it means limiting highest and best use opportunities.

Another important note is that the Legislature removed residential development as a permitted land use. Given that residential is generally the highest and best commercial use of most Hawai’i lands, OHA is denied the highest level of revenue opportunity.

To address that limiting circumstance, OHA failed in a previous appeal to the Legislature to remove the restriction. A bill is currently pending in the Legislature that would allow residential development. No doubt it will raise serious concerns.

Moving forward, from 2013 – 2015, OHA contracted a master planning team of DTL Hawaiʻi, WCIT Architecture, the Edith Kanakaʻole Foundation, and PBR Hawaiʻi tasking them with developing a new conceptual master plan for Kakaʻako Makai.

An important part of this OHA-driven master planning process was a relatively exhaustive statewide community engagement initiative. What emerged was basically the same public concerns previously expressed regarding establishing a threshold on commercial development, placing a high priority on access to the waterfront and shoreline, open spaces for recreation, and unfettered mauka-makai view planes.

At this point in the Kakaʻako Makai planning time tunnel, OHA got sidetracked by a perfect storm of serious governance issues involving other state agencies.

So, while an OHA Conceptual Master Plan was completed, it was forced onto a back burner.

OHA’s new chair, Trustee Hulu Lindsey, has hit the reset button and prioritized Kakaʻako Makai for urgent attention via re-energized deliberations and forming of an administrative team to get the ship out of the harbor.

OHA Trustees should seriously consider another round of community engagement to weigh-in on a new draft conceptual plan for Kakaʻako Makai.

OHA has a long record of advocating sustainable growth policies and stewardship of the ʻāina. If anyone understands the pain of predatory development and loss of sense of place, it is Hawaiians. I am confident that OHA will successfully navigate a fair financial return at Kakaʻako Makai in fulfilling its fiduciary duty, and at once create a gathering place that welcomes all and celebrates who we are as a people. All Hawaiʻi stand together! Let us pray.