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Billionaire's blueprint

Genshiro Kawamoto will transform two Kahala properties he bought for $39.5 million into a showcase for his art

By Andrew Gomes

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Four years ago after acquiring about 20 homes on ritzy Kahala Avenue, Japanese billionaire Genshiro Kawamoto announced plans to convert several homes into public museums to display his art collection.

The 78-year-old real estate tycoon said in an interview Wednesday that he is close to following through with a revision of the plan after spending about $40 million to add two prime properties to his real estate holdings on the street in recent months.

Kawamoto said he has shipped a 40-foot container filled with art to Honolulu, and hopes to have an 18,366-square-foot oceanfront mansion with 17 rooms spruced up to display the works by February.

The spry-looking investor also had a 71-year-old home on the neighboring lot demolished earlier this week, and said he plans to turn the 1.5-acre parcel that stretches from street to shore into a public garden connected to the museum.

The two properties, which Kawamoto bought in July and September for $17.5 million and $22 million, respectively, will be consolidated with two additional adjacent properties he bought several years ago -- creating a mega-estate covering roughly five acres almost in the middle of the prestigious 1.5-mile-long strip running through Oahu's priciest residential neighborhood.

Before the two recent purchases, most of Kawamoto's real estate along Kahala Avenue -- acquired primarily between 2002 and 2006 for about $115 million -- was too fragmented to create what he envisioned would be a landmark attraction.

"I spent a lot of money," he said through an interpreter.

"Finally, I'm right within striking distance to go ahead with my plans."

In 2006, Kawamoto imagined acquiring 10 contiguous lots, and on Wednesday he said that while he'd like to add a few more parcels, he thinks the main estate is big enough.

Kawamoto also has amassed several smaller parcels around the former Chris Hemmeter estate closer to the Koko Head end of Kahala Avenue, which he wants to convert into an oceanfront tea garden with two homes on the mauka side of the street housing a collection of Japanese pottery.

Earlier this year, Kawamoto enlisted two real estate firms to sell a dozen properties not connected to the two clusters, but those listings were canceled after one property sold. Three other homes on Kahala Avenue that Kawamoto provides free to tenants weren't listed for sale.

Like many of Kawamoto's actions in Hawaii, the museum and garden estates plan is drawing mixed views.

Jim Mawhar, an air traffic controller who lives in Nuuanu and often jogs along Kahala Avenue, said he likes Kawamoto's plan. "It sounds like a great idea -- making (the area) more public," he said. "You can't even see the beach. More beach access will certainly enhance the experience along here."

But Jarvis Holly, a retired car salesman from Kahaluu who occasionally walks along the Kahala beachfront with a metal detector, said Kawamoto's plan will commercialize a tranquil residential neighborhood, perhaps attracting loads of visitors on tour buses.

"I don't think it's right," he said. "This is a residential neighborhood. It doesn't fit. We got enough commercial stuff in Waikiki."

If Kawamoto's plan is successful, he would fulfill what he stated four years ago as the purpose of his investment in the area: to make the neighborhood more inviting to, and populated by, ordinary folk as opposed to wealthy mansion-builders who have walled off views of the ocean. "This town has become a luxurious place for the special people," Kawamoto said in a written statement in 2006.

The enigmatic businessman has long maintained that his goal in Hawaii real estate endeavors is not to make money. He said Tokyo is where his serious business takes place and that Hawaii is where he likes to release his creativity. In Wednesday's interview, Kawamoto said he's trying to "carve out a memory" with the museum estates.

"There are going to be some impressive pieces there," he said.

Some local residents are skeptical that Kawamoto will follow through with his museum plan.

The billionaire's activities in Hawaii date back to the late 1980s when he snapped up close to 200 Oahu homes for what he termed "pocket change" and rented them for more than a decade at below-market prices while making minimal repairs. He began a mass sell-off of those properties beginning in 2002, creating an uproar among many tenants.

Skeptics cite other plans Kawamoto announced that haven't come to fruition, including developing an affordable-housing high-rise in Kakaako and an affordable subdivision on Maui.

Kawamoto did make good at least partially on one plan to provide some of his homes in Kahala to needy native Hawaiian families. Since early 2007, three families have lived rent-free in million-dollar Kawamoto homes.

Kawamoto had planned to provide nine homes for the charitable effort, but his preference to Hawaiians was contested by some applicants as discriminatory. Though Kawamoto prevailed after a lengthy legal process, he didn't expand the program, citing the ordeal.

Some of the homes Kawamoto intended to use for charitable housing or museums have fallen to disrepair during the last several years after Kawamoto had walls demolished and pools filled in. The properties drew public complaints and city fines, and Kawamoto more recently has taken corrective actions, including demolishing several homes.

Kawamoto said business in Japan in the last several years didn't give him enough time to properly maintain many of his Kahala homes.

Now he said he's pushing the museum plan ahead and will establish a website soon to publicize the properties.






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