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Thursday, April 17, 2014         

ABOUT TOWN: MOILIILI


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Using past to buoy future

Moiliili development looks to historic landmarks in and around the district as a way to revitalize the area

By Mike Yuen / Special to the Star-Advertiser

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When recently queried about changes in Moiliili, Derek Kauanoe, the founder of the Moiliili Matters website, was quick to share before and after pictures of the three-story Rainbow Vista on South Beretania at Isenberg streets.

"Improvements to Rainbow Vista Apartments, which include a commercial first floor that now houses Teddy's Bigger Burgers, is a much welcomed change to the area," said Kauanoe, a Moiliili resident for more than a decade who traces his community roots back to his great-great-grandfather who lived in Moiliili and owned property that was eventually developed into the Moiliili Gardens apartment building near Kuhio School.

"There's much to be appreciated with these improvements, and Kamehameha Schools should be recognized and applauded for renovating a building while not taking away from the character of the community and some of its older, more historic-looking buildings."

Kamehameha, with holdings in Moiliili totaling 11.4 acres, is widely accepted to be the biggest commercial force in this special Honolulu neighborhood. The private educational trust's Moiliili holdings include Puck's Alley, Varsity Office Building, Varsity Center and various rental properties. Kamehameha Schools' immediate focus in Moiliili is on the ongoing renovations of 46 rental units in three apartment buildings at 2494 S. Beretania St. and 2724 and 2732 Kolo Place, which are scheduled to be completed by year's end.

"While there is no master plan in place for Puck's Alley or (the former Varsity Theater property), we do envision a major revitalization of this area into a vibrant community landmark and hub," said Susan Todani, the trust's Moiliili development director. "Timing of future development will depend on prospective tenant demand, rents that can support new construction and the limited sewer capacity."

For now, added Ron Lockwood, the chairman of the McCully-Moiliili Neighborhood Board, who has lived in Moiliili for more than 35 years, "It is 120 toilets out; 120 toilets in."

It is primarily the lack of expanded sewer capacity that has prevented 20-story high-rise condo towers from replacing Moiliili's old one-, two- and three-story buildings that have long defined the character of the district, Lockwood said.

In the late 1890s, Moiliili was an agricultural community. It was transformed in the early 20th century into a self-contained town center with expanded businesses along King Street by Japanese immigrants who also made Moiliili their home. According to the 1930 U.S. Census, 80 percent of Moiliili's residents were of Japanese ancestry.

AS LATE as the 1950s, Moiliili flourished as a commercial crossroads. By the 1960s, the new H-1 freeway pulled people away from the businesses and restaurants on Moiliili's main arteries, King and Beretania streets. But Honolulu Stadium, Oahu's primary sports and special events venue for 50 years, and cruising at Chunky's, the iconic drive-in across the street from the stadium, brought them back. However, both Moiliili landmarks have been gone for several decades, as the district evolved into a more ethnically diverse neighborhood that now has 73.5 percent renters, according to the 2010 U.S. census.

In recent years, there has been talk of revitalizing Moiliili, including suggestions to underscore the area's role was a gateway to neighboring University of Hawaii.

For developer Peter Savio, revitalization would mean more student housing — in what he terms "private dorms" — as he envisions UH growing and admitting more mainland and foreign students. And he is looking to buy properties that can be converted into private dorm buildings, said Savio, who recently renovated his dorm building near Puck's Alley.

For Lockwood, an important aspect of Moiliili's revitalization would be the expansion of Old Stadium Park by acquiring from the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands the adjacent nearly 2-acre site on which the long-closed Stadium Bowl-O-Drome sits, in a land swap with the city. The Bowl-O-Drome land would be used for a community swimming pool, Lockwood said.

Both Lockwood and Grant Kagimoto, a long-serving board member of the Moiliili Community Center, which evolved from the tuition-free Moiliili Japanese Language School that was established in 1902, point out that the city's rail transit project will likely have a significant impact on Moiliili.

And the potential changes could be as great or greater than what H-1 brought, as three rail stations are planned for the community — at the intersections of McCully Street and Kapiolani Boulevard, Kapiolani and near the Marco Polo building, and University Avenue and King Street.

The elevated stations would create "a huge shadow, a huge imprint on the neighborhood," said Lockwood, who stressed the need for "a thoughtful process" that would welcome community input on the rail plans for Moiliili.

For the people who live or work in Moiliili, having their collective voice heard is important, as well as a respect for the history, traditions and characteristics that shape their sense of community.

That is why even now you can hear community criticism of Evan Dobelle, the ousted UH president. Dobelle recognized the need for UH to connect to Moiliili, but he sought to impose his "M-town" proposal in a top-down manner that even led one UH professor to describe Dobelle's attitude toward Moiliili as "neocolonial."

The situation with Kamehameha Schools — "the 800-pound gorilla in the room," as Lockwood puts it — has been quite different. The trust — and in particular Todani, who is a regular presence at neighborhood board meetings and who is known for reaching out to the Old Town Moiliili Business Association and other community organizations — has shown a willingness to share its development proposals beforehand and treat the community as an equal partner.

"They see their investment here as a long-term investment. They're willing to listen," said Kagimoto, who is also the owner of Cane Haul Road design shop in Moiliili. "They appear to be looking at the greater good for everyone."

Regarding rail and related development in Moiliili, Todani said they amount to a significant impact "for the entire community, not just Kamehameha Schools. As these plans and issues emerge, we will definitely take them into consideration in our planning."






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