Why It’s Time for OHA to Develop Kakaʻako Makai!

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Keli‘i Akina, Ph.D., Trustee, At-Large

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs was created to ensure the “betterment of conditions for Native Hawaiians.” That’s a daunting task because, tragically, the conditions of many Hawaiians are less than ideal.

Far too many Hawaiians lack economic mobility, are in poor health, or are trapped in poverty.

Studies show that Native Hawaiians have among the highest rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. A 2020 effort to count homeless individuals on Oʻahu found that half of those surveyed identified as Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. New research also shows that Hawaiians lag behind other Hawaiʻi residents with respect to median household income, graduation from college, and earning graduate or professional degrees.

Much of that was supposed to begin changing after OHA’s acquisition of 30 acres of prime waterfront land in Kakaʻako Makai in 2012 as a settlement for past Public Lands Trust revenues owed to OHA by the state of Hawaiʻi. Valued at $200 million at the time, the property was intended to be an economic engine to generate significant wealth for the betterment of the conditions of Hawaiians.

Instead, virtually no development has taken place on this valuable property since OHA acquired it.

The potential millions of dollars of value it could have generated since then to meet the needs of Hawaiians has been lost. As OHA acknowledges on our website, “the property could potentially bring millions into OHA to help fund community-based programs aimed at improving conditions for Native Hawaiians.”

In contrast, across the street, on the mauka side of Kakaʻako, private developers have generated incredible wealth through carefully planned and skillfully executed development. While OHA cannot be faulted for having limited experience as a major commercial property owner at the time it acquired the Kakaʻako Makai properties, unfortunately, after years of conceptual planning, the properties are still not on a pathway to their full potential.

Whatever the reasons may be for the stalled development of Kakaʻako Makai, OHA’s beneficiaries should be pleased with a new push to make progress.

Following the initiative of Board Chair Hulu Lindsey, the Board of Trustees recently agreed to establish a special committee to investigate the development of policies and strategies relating to OHA’s Kakaʻako Makai properties. I believe this step reflects a shared sense of urgency among the Trustees to realize the potential of Kakaʻako Makai to produce needed revenues for Hawaiians.

Legislators, too, are seeking to move the ball forward with several pieces of legislation this session aimed at the development of Kakaʻako Makai. Some proposals include raising the allowable building height limit and permitting residential development which is currently prohibited.

We’ve still got a long way to go, but I’m glad to see that the Board of Trustees is heading in the right direction. Given the intensifying of needs amongst Native Hawaiians due to the COVID-19 crisis, our mandate as Trustees is all the more urgent. To better the conditions of our people, we must take all reasonable steps to remove barriers from the development of Kakaʻako Makai and engage expert parties who can help us fulfill the potential of this valuable ʻāina.

The fulfillment of Kakaʻako Makai’s potential could lead to revenues that can bolster the intergenerational sustainability of the Native Hawaiian Trust Fund that OHA is tasked with administering. With legislative action, the properties could also add critical residential housing supply in metro Honolulu in addition to commercial space. The possibilities are endless and can bring great benefit to Native Hawaiians and all residents of Hawaiʻi Nei.