Honolulu's transit oriented development chief is focused on the long term
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jul 1, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 2:23 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011
It's more than a little ironic that Terry Ware, a man who has spent the last few years helping Honolulu devise redevelopments centered around a new rail system that promises to make commuting easier, must himself commute between Hawaii and Denver in order to spend time each month with his wife and family.
Ware, 57, has found a temporary neighborhood that he likes near Monsarrat Avenue and has found his place in Honolulu in other ways — such as being the drummer in a jazz combo, for one.
But he acknowledges that the long-distance stuff is hard; when he completes his next one-year contract, he'll have been on the job for almost three years. With one pre-teen daughter in Colorado and her adult sister teaching in Abu Dhabi, he has to settle for the pictures he has on the wall of his Fasi Municipal Building office.
Still, the city's transit oriented development administrator, a 35-year veteran who transitioned from architectural training into urban planning, has worked in cities around the world so is used to making home where he hangs his hat.
His focus this week was on the feedback from residents and businesses between Middle Street and Aloha Tower, who met at workshops to envision how their transit stops should look. There will be more meetings in the fall, and phone surveys to tap into those who don't do meetings. It's a challenge, he said.
"When you say 'planning' and you're talking 10 or 20 years out, people's eyes kind of glaze over," he said. "They're engaged in what's happening today."
QUESTION: You seem to suggest that transit is a factor in spurring redevelopment but can't drive the process alone. Is that right?
ANSWER: Generally. If you look at what transit systems generally do the best at, it's getting people from home to work. So if I'm a developer, working for a tenant like a major bank, I'm doing speculative development, but I know that there are office users in the marketplace, then, because of congestion here, that's a major problem in moving the workforce around, I would locate a place that was close to transit. Then I know that people who work in that building are going to be able to get to work easier, that I won't have to provide as much parking, I won't lose all that economic benefit, if you will, because my employees are stuck in H-1 each day, spending two hours of their life in their car. So for some things it will drive that.
For other users, large retail users, Costco, Best Buy, most people don't shop at those discount places on transit. They drive their car, because you're buying a year's supply of toilet paper. ... I think you have to look at it in light of what those economic forces are in any community and then decide, well, how is transit going to reorder that picture? It doesn't create new employment.
Q: What other developments center around rail?
A: Housing is a big one. ... If you look at Gen Y-ers (Generation Y, born 1979-2000), where are they making choices about living? ... They want to go out at night, they want to be able to walk, walkable communities, not having to drive a car. That's the kind of development you're beginning to see in many communities focused around transit. So they're young, they're urban, they want to be in urban areas. So the kind of redevelopment that creates special communities -- which, I hate to say, I don't see many examples here.
Q: Is there any way to attract it?
A: Part of the challenge here is that the real need in the marketplace relative to development is affordable housing, and it's very difficult to make those numbers work. That's a lot of what we're looking at with the transit system here. ... The concern, of course, is that people who live in these areas today are dislocated because property values rise, the developers come in, they realize they can't make the numbers work for moderate-income housing, and so that population is pushed out.
Q: Isn't that the worry, that lower-income areas will be gentrified?
A: Yes. Gentrification is a real concern ... a likely scenario.
Q: You've mentioned how the city is looking at ways to work against that, possibly partnering to make housing near transit more affordable. Is there a precise plan yet?
A: It's kind of open-ended right now. We're going to put together an advisory task force of developers, nonprofits, residents to help us examine each of these issues and try and come up with some resolution.
Q: Which station plans are done?
A: The ones that have been completed are East Kapolei, UH-West and Ho'opili, West Loch, Leeward Community College, Pearl Highlands, Pearl Ridge ..... they're in draft stage. When City Council passed that ordinance directing us to prepare these stationary plans, one of the riders to that was within 120 days of completing those plans, you have to come back with a revised land use ordinance that then implements those plans. Well, given the resources we have ...
Q: You're kind of behind?
A: Well, we're moving forward, but it takes time, about eight months to a year to complete each plan. So we're hoping by the end of this year or the middle of next year to have completed all the stationary plans, at which point we'll probably have to go back and get the community reenergized, to say, "All right, it's been two years since we talked to you.This is what it looks like. Let's tweak it."
We're in the process now of beginning to look at the land use ordinance to understand how we can revise it. But quite honestly, once again, there are not a lot of resources available. So ... where many other communities have gone and said, "Look, we wrote our land use ordinances in 1950, this is the year 2011, we need to come up with best practices and look at the state of the art," I don't know that we're going to be in that position. We're probably going to be tweaking and modifying what we already have, which means it's going to look like a camel.
Q: What is the aim of the community meetings at this stage? There was a lot of dream-talking at the one on Monday.
A: The role of the planner in this process, idealistically, is to make those dreams come true.To have people articulate what their vision of their community is, and then it's our job to try and figure out: How do you get from Point A to Point B? ... Hopefully, by them defining what they want their community to be and us understanding "Here's the end point that we're trying to get to," we can put in place those policies, programs and investments that will attract private investment and private developers to then create that dream.
So, to the question, "Is the city going to build this? You don't have any money," no, we're not going to build it. That's where the market piece comes in. If there's no market, not much is going to change.
Q: So sometimes no amount of planning can make this all happen?
A: That's exactly right. Developers are risk-averse. Particularly now, after we've gone through this economic depression, banks are risk-averse, because developers are going to go to the lenders to borrow that money. And so it goes back to the discussion we were having. Capital is global. ... What is it that's driving it here that will attract that global capital to come here? And it's not the transit system. That's a component of it, but it's the other kinds of forces. That's where education becomes key. UH-West, in developing their West campus: Are they tying into the Department of Defense work in robotics and virtual warfare that's going on and building on that? The cancer center: Health care is a big industry globally, so what's happening here with that? Are we on the cutting edge with that? Astronomy ... there are some things that are here, but is it enough to begin attracting that global capital so they come and say, "Where would we build a new research center? And is that going to be adjacent to transit, so that those people won't get stuck in congestion?"
Q: So if this process is so complex, the land-use ordinance for these areas would have to be pretty flexible?
A: Yeah. ... If people say, just as an example, "We like the two- and three-story nature of development here and there's some historic character to it." ... They want to maintain that character but allow infill development. So in a lot of those communities, the focus is on design guidelines that allows smaller-scale development to go in.
Q: Have you noticed any overarching themes at the community meetings about redevelopment?
A: Recreational opportunities is one. They want walkable, pedestrian-safe communities.
A lot of the development is mom-and-pop retail stores and restaurants, so they want to maintain those, they don't want them to be forced out.
So, coming full circle, one of the policies we could engage with developers, particularly if there's a rezoning, is doing a first option to the local retailer. And we might have to step in and subsidize that ... to make sure there's some neighborhood connection we need to think about how we can help finance the capital necessary to make Joe's Sandwich Shop successful, or at least give them the option of being in that new development. That's where the challenge comes in.