Whither Kakaako?

The Star-Advertiser greeted Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s proposed 650-foot condo tower in Kakaako with caution, calling for “extensive, transparent” public hearings. (“Kakaako project has merit, but tower worries,” Our View, Oct. 30, 2011).

The project should raise other concerns, foremost among them the blind eye the Governor casts on the city’s planning efforts.

In an interview with the governor, Civil Beat's John Temple reported on Nov. 29, 2011 (“Urban Planning, Architecture Books Atop Hawaii Governor's Desk”), that “Abercrombie talked about how planning in Honolulu has been ‘hit and miss,’ how he wants to build a ‘third city,’ including an ‘urban oasis’ in Kakaako, and how a new public land development corporation could help.”

The idea of developing Kakaako as a third city — a “third urban destination, next to Waikiki and Kapolei” — was repeated by James H. Spencer in the Star-Advertiser (“Much world-class potential in Kakaako,” Dec. 04, 2011).

Spencer mentions approvingly that Gov. Abercrombie wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on Lewis Mumford, “one of the world’s great urbanists.” He also mentions, somewhat mischievously, that Mumford “uttered a whisper” in 1938 of how urban density in Kakaako will “limit sprawl on Oahu” and “allow for more productive utilization of agricultural land.”

Spencer should not have distorted Mumford’s message to promote the governor’s short-sighted agenda.

In 1976, I was hired by the City Council to help the council draft the New Oahu General Plan. A member of the Department of General Planning urged me to read Mumford’s 1938 report on park and city planning. Titled “Whither Honolulu?,” the 67-page report was prepared for the city’s Park Board.

The report is essential reading for any discussion of city planning in Honolulu. It was dated, the planner and I agreed. But we also agreed that it sets forth sound principles that were appropriate for the New Oahu General Plan. Those principles hold good today.

Here are a few of Mumford’s principles:

  • On page one, Mumford reminds us of the “complex nature of the human environment. No structure can stand alone; no function exists by itself."

  • "Good planning means rehabilitation: it means beginning over again and doing the job right." (page 16)

  • "Planning that is done now will set the mould of the future. Hence it is important, both in the general scheme of planning and in each individual task, to take all the necessary time and forethought and technical skill and art that are necessary to effect a good plan." (page 17)

  • "For good planning, today more than ever, is not a matter of putting through an isolated project: it is above all a matter of coordination." (page 18)

  • "What is needed is a block-by-block canvass of neighborhoods to establish the number of families, the number of people per block, the number of children, the age distribution of all the people surveyed, and finally their present recreational preferences." (page 30)

Gov. Abercrombie’s proposed condo tower at 690 Pohukaina, part of his plan to create a “third city,” is appalling because it comes with no justification. How, one wonders, does it coordinate with the Oahu General Plan? What impact will it have on developing Kapolei as the the secondary urban center?

The reasons for developing Kapolei were compelling. Sugar on Oahu was on the decline. The closing of Oahu Sugar Company would result in lost jobs and in vast acreages in Ewa lying fallow. The single landowner had prepared a master plan that would create new economic activity to replace lost sugar-industry jobs. And the construction of a deep-draft harbor and a new university campus had strong public support.

How was need for the residential skyscraper in Kakaako determined? Will it be built to alleviate a current housing shortage or to house second-home buyers who hope to sojourn in Honolulu on multiple-entry visas? What is the justification for a “third city”?

The 690 Pohukaina project will benefit from abundant public discussion.

A Mumfordian solution would be to develop the property, along with adjacent Mother Waldron Park, as a park and recreation area. In 2020, Kakaako could have as many as 30,000 residents, about the same number of people who live in Kapolei today.

When the skyscraper project was announced, Anthony Ching, the executive director of the Hawaii Community Development Authority, said, "This will be a signature development in Hawaii. You will have unobstructed views, and that you clearly are a one of a kind situation." But we must ask the occupant of the skyscraper, “Whose view will you obstruct?”

Remember what Lewis Mumford said on page one of his report, “No structure can stand alone; no function exists by itself."

About the author: Warren Iwasa, a Honolulu resident, was a consultant to the City Council on drafting the New Oahu General Plan.

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