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Building better neighborhoods around transit stations

LAST UPDATED: 2:23 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011

Realtors in Honolulu are encouraged by the direction of efforts to plan transit-oriented development. It augurs well for the neighborhoods that will be hosting the initial transit stations.

Amid the flurry of protests and lawsuits surrounding rail and in the face of competing claims for authority and autonomy, we run the risk of losing sight of the wood for the trees. The city's Department of Planning and Permitting (DPP) community workshops are therefore a welcome sign of constructive engagement of the largely silent majority who look forward to progress on the rail project but whose anticipation goes largely unreported. Their interest in rail rests on the promise of all that it could potentially do to revitalize neighborhoods, ease commuting woes and cluster services in ways that will improve the quality of life for people living around the transit stations.

At the first of the workshops in Kalihi recently, the dozens who turned up found themselves quickly organized into small groups for a visioning exercise. They were asked to write headlines for a magazine cover on Honolulu in 2030. Clearly the small groups were conducive to discussion and the collective imagination because what emerged after about 20 minutes were several heart-warming headlines that captured the optimism of the community about the future and what it could look like with the advent of rail.

The imagined headlines read: "Kalihi: A Real Second City," "Beautification on Track with Higher Density and Walkable Neighborhoods," "Affordable Homes for Our Grandchildren," "Rail System Finally Finished," "Back to the Future," and "Homelessness Solved Permanently."

There was a fair amount of gray hair in the room so it would be safe to say that there was very likely some looking back to days gone by in order to visualize the days ahead.

Were people imagining pedestrian and bike-friendly pathways because they once had them? Were they asking for well-lit streets to regain the sense of safety they once enjoyed? Were they asking for more restaurants, laundry and beauty services because they remembered a time when one walked to a neighborhood restaurant for a meal or were able to get one's hair done or clothes cleaned down the street?

Transit-oriented development is about many things. It's about creating better-served communities where a second car is not absolutely necessary because almost anything you need day-to-day is within a safe five minute walkable radius. It's about support for small businesses and better utilization of land. It's about convenience, reduced stress and pollution and about creating a better mix of jobs, businesses, schools and housing.

In the words of Rajeev Bhatia, urban planning consultant to the city's DPP, who ran the Kalihi meeting, transit-oriented development is best understood in terms of density, diversity and design. Done well, it will go a long way toward enhancing property values, a key concern for everyone. Done with the kind of community input that was in evidence at the Kalihi meeting, it will have the stamp of community ownership. And that is priceless.

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