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Oahu’s beautiful architectural legacy disappearing one home at a time

By J.R. Robinson


In early October, the City Council finalized its amendments to Ordinance 11-7, the rule that grants a significant property tax exemption to owners of historic homes.  The amendments provide new clarity, transparency and improved enforcement to the city’s historic homes preservation program.

My purpose in writing is, first, to applaud the City Council members for supporting this measure. The continuation of the property tax exemption for historic homes was by no means assured. Abuses of the exemption privilege by homeowners were exposed in investigative reports published in the Star-Advertiser and certain vocal activists attempted to turn the issue into a debate about social equity. To its great credit, the Council was able to see the larger, more important picture — that preserving our architectural heritage is absolutely critical to maintaining the sense of “old Hawaii” in Oahu neighborhoods. In truth, the property tax exemption for historic homes is a proven, effective tool for encouraging preservation, and it is indisputable that historic homes enhance the values of surrounding properties and their neighborhoods.

My second inspiration for writing is to provide an unfortunate example of what happens in the absence of either economic incentives for preservation or zoning restrictions on alterations to historic residences. On Manoa Road, there stood a stately home that was one of a handful of Colonial Revival houses built in Manoa in the 1920s by the same architect. The home had a beautiful lava rock fireplace, double-wall redwood construction, white oak floors, a sleeping porch and many interesting visual architectural features. I toured the house during a Realtor’s open house last year and, while it was in need of major interior restoration, it was by no means beyond salvation. On my drive home from work recently, I was saddened to discover that the house had been demolished and the site leveled for new construction.

To be clear, I do not begrudge the new owner of the property for his actions — the house was not on the historic register and, in the absence of other preservation restrictions, he has the right to do with his property as he sees fit. I also understand that not everyone shares my appreciation of old houses. However, to those who do not see the value of preserving Oahu’s architectural heritage, I maintain that Manoa suffered a very real economic and cultural loss when the house was destroyed. Aside from the loss to an Oahu landfill of the old growth redwood, pine and koa from which the house was constructed, the disappearance of this irreplaceable home undeniably diminishes the character of the neighborhood and Manoa Valley. The cost of losing this house is tangible, obvious and permanent.

To my knowledge, this is at least the third such property to disappear in Manoa in 2011 alone. Had these homes been on the historic register, it might have deterred the people who demolished them from buying the houses in the first place.

Make no mistake: The incremental loss of these properties is extinguishing the charm and character of Oahu’s residential neighborhoods, and underscores the importance and need for further measures to preserve the startlingly small number of pre-WWII homes that remain.

I hope that in some small way this example will raise awareness of the importance of Ordinance 11-7 and of the need to do more to preserve Oahu’s architectural legacy.

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allie wrote:
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on November 8,2011 | 06:33AM
fairgame947 wrote:
The assumption that this particular exemption is for the very rich is flawed. Many of these older home owners have owned these homes for over 40 years and are no way "very rich" as you say. They are property rich perhaps as the value of their home has increased over the years of ownership but they are not necessarily rich people. Some live on small retirement incomes. Then they often are forced to sell or need to downsize as they are not able to care for their homes due to their age and failing health. They then may sell to the "very rich" and you can now see what the "very rich" have been allowed to do - tear it down. Please don't make assumptions until you know the facts. You just don't know what you are writing about, that is most obvious.
on November 8,2011 | 07:49AM
Leewardboy wrote:
1. Sad to see homes like this disappear. Sad to see the old plantation worker's homes disappearing too. Just hope we don't end up with another ":MacMansion" monstrosity on this site - becoming all too common these days.
on November 8,2011 | 07:31AM
Hapa_Haole_Boy wrote:
What's wrong with McMansions? If an owner has the space, resources and desire for a particular size and style house, then go ahead. OTOH, if it means the person is UNHEATHILY overleveraged (financially) b/c of the McMansion, then that's cause for pause. But assuming the person is prudent and can handle the financial obligation, then go for it, nothing wrong with it.
on November 8,2011 | 03:03PM
Leewardboy wrote:
You are correct - there is nothing "wrong" with it. However - there is a home in the neighborhood that looks like a fortress. Absolutely out of character. I'm sure they can afford it but it will push property taxes up and, IMHO, is an eyesore that sticks out like a sore thumb. When I say MacMansions I don't mean just the size. Several homes in our area have been greatly but tastefully expanded and I have absolutely no objection on their appearance.. In our neighborhood there are two houses that show the good and bad of new construction: there is one recently constructed home where it appears the owners ran out of money. The home is completed but the wall is half-done and the yard is overgrown and was never landscaped. There is also a freshly completed home that is beautifully designed, fits into the neighborhood and the owners had the yard professionally landscaped. I admire this home every time my dog and I walk past it. MacMansions in constrast & iMHO, are just plain ugly and ruin the look and feel of neighborhoods. YMMV
on November 9,2011 | 08:12AM
bender wrote:
End the tax exemptions. For the most part, the everyday person making an average incoming is subsidizing wealthy owners. To the credit of some that were exposed as recipients, they have since opted to pay their share. To them I say thank you. To others (like retired legislator, former city managing director and current attorney Kirk Caldwell) I say bah, pay your share. I can hardly afford to pay my own property taxes, why should I subsidize a wealthy guy who could easily pay his. And for the author of this article, I don't think people should own historic homes if they can't afford them.
on November 8,2011 | 07:38AM
Maneki_Neko wrote:
Here, I'll make it simple: if you can't affords to pay property taxes like everybody else, don't buy the historic house. Got it? Good, 'cause I have no interest in subsidizing your wallet so you can say you are "preserving" something when basically you just want a tax break. Leeches.
on November 8,2011 | 07:39AM
Kuniarr wrote:
With Transit Oriented Development that will follow Rail, many homes owned by families for decades, some even for 50-100 years along the 20 mile route would be swallowed thru eminent domain.
on November 8,2011 | 10:51AM
control wrote:
yeah....so what? How do you think H1 and the Pali were built? I have co-workers who lost their homes they owned for generations when H1 was built thru Kaimuki and Halawa. Another coworker lost theirs when the Pali was built thru Nuuanu Valley.....life goes on.....
on November 9,2011 | 08:36PM
docktafunk wrote:
As the author of this editorial, I am compelled to follow up on some of the comments that have been posted. First, to address suggestions of potential conflicts of interest or personal bias on my part, while I do live in an old Manoa home that my wife and I restored, our house is not on the historic register, nor do we receive any property tax exemptions. I am also not a member of any organization or special interest group. I am simply a guy who loves old houses and seeks to preserve the architectural history of Oahu. That said, I am also sympathetic to the cries of people who object to the use of property tax exemptions as a preservation incentive. However, I maintain that framing this issue as a social equity debate rather than a preservation issue is extremely shortsighted and misguided. First, the perception that this exemption exists only for the rich is misinformed. More than 80% of the homes currently on the register are valued at less than $1 million. Further, most of the half dozen or so pre-WWII houses that have been destroyed in Manoa alone in 2011 were small or modest structures. It is an established fact that the use of property tax exemptions as a preservation tool is effective at deterring wealthy individuals/developers from flattening beautiful old homes in favor of new development and/or the building of McMansions in old neighborhoods. I also do not disagree with those who would favor zoning and redevelopment restrictions on pre-WWII houses over property tax incentives. However, it is my understanding that attempts to propose such measures in the past have been met with resistance and portrayed as attempts to take away the property rights of people who happen to live in old houses. I understand that this issue stirs passions. However, in my opinion, well-meaning attempts to turn the issue of historic preservation into a social equity debate are misinformed and short-sighted, and I fear that we will not realize how valuable Oahu’s fast disappearing architectural legacy is until it is lost. Mahalo - J.R.R.
on November 8,2011 | 01:20PM
Maneki_Neko wrote:
Same answer. If you cannot afford to pay the same taxes as everybody else, sell the house. It doesn't matter the age or value - you own the place, you pay for the place.

Fact is, if some of these houses that never turn over actually sold to new owners, maybe the new owners would not defer the maintenance and ignore the repairs.
on November 8,2011 | 03:02PM
lee1957 wrote:
The fact is most taxpayers have no interest in subsidizing the preservation of these old homes. Some, like you, have put your passion into action. Good on you for restoring your historic abode. If you can do it without tax subsidies, others can too. Otherwise, take a nice picture and move on. I do not agree that there is an over-ridding interest for legislative interference for preservation.
on November 8,2011 | 04:42PM
Papakolea wrote:
I agree with Mr. Robinson. These old homes add a tremendous amount of character to our older neighborhoods. At the same time, they are private property and the government cannot mandate their preservation so the only thing we can do is incentivize it. But rather than a property tax credit, how's about if the owners of homes on the register could deduct repair and maintenance expenses? After all, an old home that isn't maintained can become an eyesore. That way the homeowners still have to pay their property taxes, but the incentive relies on the owner spending money (thus putting money into the economy) before they can get their incentive. I also agree with Mr. Robinson that its a shame when people try to make this a social equity issue.
on November 8,2011 | 05:09PM
docktafunk wrote:
Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Papakolea. The problem with your tax deduction -for-expenses proposal is that it does not deter future owners from leveling the home. In contrast, the property tax exemption provides a real incentive for successive property owners to preserve the homes. The effectiveness of this measure has been demonstrated in historic districts all around the U.S. I maintain that if the six homes in Manoa that have been destoryed this year had been on the historic register, they might still be standing today. The home at 2346 Manoa Road was sold out of an estate, and the new owner promptly flattened it. He would not have been able to do so if it had been on the historic register. As an aside, it is also a shame that the materials from all of these destroyed old houses went to our landfills. Many property owners are not aware that they can obtain inexpensive deconstruction and a tax deduction for the donation value of materials by enlisting the services of Re-Use Hawaii - a local non-profit organization that sells recycled building materials. -- JR
on November 8,2011 | 07:08PM
Papakolea wrote:
Thank you for your editorial and follow-up comments. If I'm not mistaken, homes that are on the historic register can still be demolished but the owner would have to take the property off the register triggering a payback of all the deferred property taxes. But you raise a good point in that property taxes can be easily tracked and are public information. Even if the recapture of an income tax deduction was attached as a deed restriction, a future owner wouldn't have access to how much income tax was avoided by the previous owner. I know that the majority of places on the mainland use property tax credits as the mechanism for historic preservation so it's not something unique to Honolulu. I was just trying to think of a way to kill two birds with one stone (bolster the economy while still providing some type of incentive to the homeowner to preserve a historic home). I agree with you that the focus of this effort should be on finding an effective way of preserving these homes and not turning it into a social equity issue.
on November 8,2011 | 09:00PM
lee1957 wrote:
But you still want to use the power of government to get what you want at the expense of the owner, a private citizen.
on November 9,2011 | 06:39PM