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Residents demand HCDA change or die - Hawaii News - Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Kakaako neighbors tell lawmakers that the agency has been favoring developers too much

By Nanea Kalani

POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Feb 09, 2014
LAST UPDATED: 05:07 a.m. HST, Feb 09, 2014

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NANEA KALANI / NKALANI@STARADVERTISER.COM

Kakaako residents packed a conference room at the state Capitol Saturday morning

Kakaako residents want the Legislature to restructure the Hawaii Community Development Authority to be more responsive to community concerns and better manage growth in the area, or abolish the agency, tasked with regulating development in Honolulu's urban core.

Residents packed a conference room at the state Capitol Saturday morning, where the House Water and Land Committee heard several hours of testimony on seven bills that would restrict the HCDA's power, including a few aimed at sending a message that the authority is moving too fast in approving projects.

Testifiers, many of them wearing bright red T-shirts that read, "Save Our Kaka'ako," told lawmakers that they feel the agency is catering to developers at the expense of infrastructure, traffic and the makai and mauka views of existing residents.

After a nearly seven-hour hearing, Rep. Cindy Evans (D, Kaupule-hu-Waimea-Halaula), committee chairwoman, said the committee would hold off on deciding on the measures until Tuesday morning.

An estimated 30,000 people could live in Kakaako by 2030, up from 12,000 today, under the HCDA's redevelopment plans. Yet residents say the agency hasn't addressed needs for more infrastructure, health care facilities and schools to accommo- date the growth.

Several high-rise condominium projects in the area have been approved in seemingly quick succession as private developers seize on the economic recovery and market demand. One resident described the agency to lawmakers as a "taxpayer-funded lobby for the construction industry."

Others took issue with luxury penthouses -- such as one under construction that's estimated to list for $50 million -- designed to lure wealthy mainland and foreign investors when units designated as affordable are priced out of reach of many residents. For example, units in a workforce housing condominium being built on Kapiolani Boulevard are priced at between $329,400 and $692,300.

HCDA Executive Director Anthony Ching, who testified against four of seven bills before the committee and provided comments on the others, said the agency is trying to increase homeownership opportunities for working families.

"The only way for us to produce more housing is to influence the private developer to produce additional housing that is 'affordable' according to the rules that we have established," Ching said. "That housing is done without any state subsidy. We're trying to do the best that we can."

Still, many residents asked lawmakers to rein in the HCDA's powers and provide more oversight.

"Contrary to its frequent claims that it has responded to community concerns, the authority has acted in many ways to obstruct those concerns by establishing rules that allow it to dismiss, even sometimes ignore, our worries about infrastructure, affordability, traffic, open space, pedestrian access, noise, privacy, public safety, crowded living conditions, scarcity of recreational space ... just to name a few of our worries," said longtime resident Web Nolan.

Cara Kimura, an architect who has lived in Kakaako for 15 years, said residents aren't against development, but want it done right.

"We welcome new neighbors. We want our residential community to grow. We want development done right. But we need your help," Kimura testified. "Without your help, the promise of a livable, walkable community will be lost, and Kakaako will become another Waikiki ... only instead of tightly packed hotels, it will be congested with high-rise condos owned by offshore interests."

State House Majority Leader Scott Saiki, who represents Kakaako and sat in on Saturday's hearing, introduced a package of eight bills that run the gamut from an all-out repeal of the HCDA to zeroing out the authority's budget and imposing a one-year moratorium on the approval plans in Kakaako.

Other measures would create a contested- case process so individuals can challenge HCDA decisions and empower citizens to sue to enforce the authority's rules. Another bill would restructure the HCDA's nine-member board of directors.

About 100 pieces of written testimony were received by Friday night for each of the seven bills taken up by the committee, with an overwhelming majority in support of the measures.

Sherry Menor-McNamara, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, testified against attempts to interfere with the HCDA's management of the area. She pointed out that the agency was set up in 1976 "to redevelop substantially undeveloped, blighted or economically depressed areas."

She said, "After almost 40 years of public investment in infrastructure ... the market conditions are such that private developers are moving forward with a variety of projects in Kakaako. The plans to redevelop Kakaako ... are being realized. We believe it would be unfortunate if the planned density and the return on investment in infrastructure are not fully realized in Kakaako by not allowing full build-out."

Representatives for Kakaako's two major private landowners -- Howard Hughes Corp. and Kamehameha Schools -- also opposed the bills.

Dave Striph of Howard Hughes said the company has invested more than $50 million on its planned projects with the understanding that it had vested rights to develop.

Walter Thoemmes with Kamehameha Schools said the trust has "spent years and valuable resources" on its master plan for the area.

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