Kailua struggles to be a magic mix of quaint and urban
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Oct 17, 2010
Growth inevitably comes to small towns everywhere, but that doesn't change the impulse small town residents feel, to keep it at arm's length.
This is the dynamic that's been in play in recent years in Kailua, as redevelopment of the core business district has begun to alter the look of the place.
Individually, the new storefronts along Kailua Road feature a more upscale, beachy facade that many find inviting. The latest construction in progress will yield a trendy Whole Foods market in the middle of town.
But taken together, the changes have sparked some community concern that the town's quirky character is giving way to something more generic. More chain stores, more traffic -- from tourists as well as local residents.
In the last few months, this simmering issue has been brought to a boil with the proposal for a Target store to take over the lease at the site occupied by the somewhat smaller-scale Don Quijote outlet.
Target would not need any special permission to come in, but that hasn't prevented it from becoming a topic of heated debate. Some people like the idea; others say "big box" retailers are a poor match for Kailua.
The Kailua Chamber of Commerce is officially staying neutral on the development, but some small merchants feel unsettled about the competition. Last week, Target officials came to town to try to put them at ease. Communication, said chamber board member Daniela Stolfi, is an absolute necessity.
"When you deal with the community, you have to have them involved," she said. "You're just asking for trouble if you don't."
A town is a living organism. Some grow and change quietly and gradually, but that's the exception rather than the rule.
The rule is that change tends to come in waves and bring growing pains with it. And in a town with a population like Kailua's -- often fractious but always vocal and engaged -- pain is not endured in silence.
Cynthia Thielen, the veteran state representative for the 51st District, knew the mounting concern over increasing traffic and a change in the mix of businesses in downtown Kailua had reached a tipping point with the proposal to open a Target store in the town center.
"I've received about 1,000 e-mails -- with names and addresses," she said a few weeks ago. "It's not just young people. It's all ages, and multiethnic groups.
"People feel quite protective of the small businesses that have grown up in our community," Thielen said.
Target Inc. is still finalizing its plan to take over the lease now held by Don Quijote USA Co. and occupy the Don Quijote store on Hahani Street, a busy thoroughfare running past the post office, shops, restaurants and other popular stopping points. The existing zoning would allow a replacement structure with 130,000 feet of retail space -- nearly one-third larger than the current store.
Its size -- and the fact that a Target would tend to draw in more traffic from outside the community with its one-stop-shop appeal -- are the most immediate worry for Kailuans. But their angst goes far beyond that.
First, as Thielen noted, there's the fear that competition from such a "big box" retailer would draw business away from, rather than to, the constellation of small mom-and-pops scattered throughout the town center. Gradually, said David Kim, owner of the Oiwi Ocean Gear shop near the beach, these are being replaced by mainland chains.
"We feel there's a sense of homogenization going on, and it's losing its unique character," Kim said. "Kailua is a quirky town. We have always taken great pride in the fact that we have many small businesses.
"Now when you walk outside you think, 'Wow, they're turning us into Ward,'" he added.
The comparison to Ward is not coincidental. The landlord that holds the lease, Kaneohe Ranch Management Ltd., is headed by Mitch D'Olier. He was at the helm of another redevelopment, producing the Ward Centers complex, before becoming chief executive officer at Kaneohe Ranch.
D'Olier said all the changes -- ranging from the remake of the Kailua Road storefronts that now include Pier 1 Imports, California Pizza Kitchen and Starbucks, to the construction of a Whole Foods supermarket nearby -- stem from the fact that leases on much of Kaneohe Ranch properties have reached the end of their term.
As the lease expiration approached, D'Olier commissioned a community survey on redevelopment in 2002 and held meetings to discuss anticipated changes to the Kailua town area.
Don Quijote spokespersons did not respond to a request for comment, but D'Olier said Target began its planning for Kailua through direct discussions with Don Quijote, not with the landlord.
And although he added that Kaneohe Ranch did not initiate this move, its officials see it in a positive light, as a means to improve an aging, almost distressed property. Further, he said, the arrival of Target, which fills merchandise niches not otherwise served in Kailua, could bring in customers for other businesses, too.
"All of a sudden all the empty merchandise categories in Kailua get filled and people don't have to leave Kailua to get anything," D'Olier said. "It's going to make Kailua a more successful place to shop."
Not all the merchants are convinced. The Kailua Chamber of Commerce recently surveyed its members. Among the statements merchants were asked to rate: "I believe that Target coming to Kailua will result in the closing of smaller retailers." About 42 percent of the respondents said they "strongly agree" with the statement.
Daniela Stolfi, a member of the Chamber of Commerce board, said some members expressed relief following a series of meetings Target executives held last week with business and community representatives. The company officials gave assurances that they would address any traffic issues that arise, she said, adding that they made donation pledges to community programs such as the Boys and Girls Club and the annual fireworks display.
It was the lack of communication up to that point that set Kailua residents on edge. Both state Rep. Chris Lee and City Councilman Ikaika Anderson said they knew Target was considering a Kailua store but were taken by surprise when the company decided to move ahead with little fanfare.
Last summer, a representative turned up at a Kailua Neighborhood Board committee meeting, with about 100 people in the audience, presenting drawings. A full-scale protest ensued, including sign-waving and petition campaigns as well as the posting of a Facebook page and the founding of a grassroots organization, Choose Kailua, supporting community-based planning.
For their part, Target executives maintain that they have given serious consideration to their future neighbors, citing the committee presentation and other community contacts.
"Target understands and greatly values that Kailua is a special place, so we're doing everything we can to ensure that our store fits the unique character of the town," Sarah Bakken, a company spokesperson, said in a prepared statement sent by e-mail. "We have listened and will continue to listen to the community, and are doing our best to guarantee the Don Quijote site, which has not seen any improvements in years, is redeveloped in a way that spurs long-term vitality for existing and future local businesses, while serving a niche within Kailua that is not being met today."
Planning disputes currently have reached the boiling point in Kailua, but other communities on Oahu have grappled with growth issues in the past; the transit-oriented development projects along the proposed rail route has made such debates a certainty for the future.
Some cities try to head off such conflicts by getting special design rules passed restricting the scale of business activity. In May 2007, Kauai became the first Hawaii county to prohibit big-box stores by capping store size at 75,000 square feet.
And even in the absence of such regulations, developers find it wise to work with residents to reach some accommodation, said John Whalen, a former city land-use director who now heads his own private planning firm. Kaneohe Ranch did begin its own process with community outreach, he said.
"The fact that Kaneohe Ranch even had these community meetings shows they're aware they have to do something," Whalen said. "But they are in the business of making money from the property."
But he added that all the uproar over Target may end up hitting its mark.
"I wouldn't completely dismiss the influence of protest, especially over retailers," he said. "They depend on the community reaction, and they're not going to do something that's detrimental to their business interest."
Shopowner Kim agreed. While he acknowledged that the protest may not block the Target project, it may still be effective. He expressed that hope more pointedly.
"Maybe this way we'll get the store we want," he said, "rather than the store they're trying to shove down our throats."