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Build Honolulu upward or outward, but not both

By Cynthia Oi

LAST UPDATED: 2:57 a.m. HST, Nov 10, 2011

That’s going to be one colossal building kissing the Kakaako sky if all goes as intended by the state agency that gets to decide such things.

What’s more, the edifice may not be the only structure stretching into the wild blue yonder, if the Hawaii Community Development Authority changes vertical limits in the neighborhood from the current 400 feet to 650 feet, the height envisioned for the tower at what has been dubbed the 690 Pohukaina project.

The agency also seeks to raise the roof limits around the city’s proposed rail transit stations, whose elevated concrete courses and columns have already drawn complaints about spoiled mountain-to-sea view planes.

Buildings with altitude, agency officials argue, would create housing that regular people may be able to buy and rent, while grouping residential units near transit facilities, which could get people out of their cars and relieve some of the misery of driving in the city.

Makes sense.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s pitch for the project and for increasing density in Kakaako is to counteract urban sprawl and end “arguments about where we’re going to build” — arguments that have been running long and hard across Central Oahu, the west side and the North Shore.

He may be too optimistic.

Urban sprawl — or more accurately, suburban sprawl — due to the conflict it arouses and the stresses it places on natural and public resources, will continue until the state and city put the brakes on residential development on open spaces and agricultural lands.

A better focus would be what’s called infill construction: building on vacant parcels or redeveloping under-used properties with residential and commercial components.

The Kakaako project appears to incorporate this idea. It would remove the need to extend infrastructure, such as sewer, water and power lines, across long distances and maximize the use of existing public facilities and services.

After all, widening old streets is easier and cheaper than building new ones and attaching on-ramps, off-ramps and extra lanes to freeways.

The plan for 690 Pohukaina would include housing for people of various income levels and provide some community spaces.

It would tie into nearby projects that would also offer retailers and stores so that residents could walk to buy groceries and other needs without gassing up the car.

To entice investors to bankroll 690 Pohukaina, the state is dangling the increased height-limit as a carrot, since without additional pricier “market rate” units to sell, including “affordable” housing would not pencil out in profits.

Too often, however, such trade-offs are rescinded or reduced for financial or other excuses. If the project is to succeed in its goal of providing decent housing at reasonable prices, the state cannot swap them out.

As for the governor’s objective to quiet the noise over land-use conflicts, he and the agency will first have to wait until the public has its say about radically altering the city’s skyline, then commit to stemming development outside urban lines. They can’t have both.


Cynthia Oi can be reached at

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