A vacant parcel of state land in Kakaako Makai rejected for condominium tower development in 2006 will soon become a massive lot for paid parking under an "interim" use that has drawn public criticism.
The Hawaii Community Development Authority, a state agency governing redevelopment in Kakaako, recently began construction work to make the 7.5-acre site adjacent to the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center into a paved lot with 1,115 stalls.
Completion of the parking lot is expected in December.
But a community group advising HCDA criticized the plan as inappropriate and suggested a farmers market as a better alternative.
"This is a commercial use with no public benefit," said Michelle Matson, a member of the Kakaako Makai Community Planning Advisory Council established by the Legislature to collaborate with HCDA. "An interim use should have a public benefit. It’s public land."
Anthony Ching, HCDA executive director, said the plan is a practical response to a state Department of Health requirement to contain contaminated soil on the site.
"People might feel that it (the parking lot) is unappealing and there’s a cost to it, but we get a beneficial use and in the long run I believe we’re ahead in the game," Ching said.
The site, commonly referred to as the "piano lot" because of its grand piano shape, borders Ahui, Ilalo, Ohe and Olomehani streets about a block inland of Kewalo Harbor and Point Panic.
Most of the site was long used by the city as a maintenance yard for garbage trucks, which resulted in the ground being contaminated with hazardous levels of lead and arsenic.
HCDA moved the city off the land in preparation for soliciting private development proposals in 2005 for 36.5 acres surrounding Kewalo Harbor.
But a tentatively approved bid by local development firm Alexander & Baldwin for developing three condo towers, a hula amphitheater, restaurants, stores and a pedestrian bridge spanning the harbor channel was nixed by the Legislature. A&B had proposed buying the piano lot from the state for $50 million plus a share of condo sale proceeds.
The Legislature in 2006 prohibited residential use of land in Kakaako makai of Ala Moana Boulevard, and that killed A&B’s plans.
The result was the piano lot was left empty and became a magnet for the homeless.
Further complicating plans for the lot, the Health Department in 2007 notified the HCDA that it needed to take care of the soil contamination posing a hazard to the ocean from runoff and to people.
HCDA considered three options — capping the areas with 6 inches of dirt, 6 inches of gravel or pavement.
The agency elected to pave the piano lot.
Paving, according to Ching, was the preferred option because it gives the agency the best opportunity and flexibility to use the site for revenue-generating parking and other uses.
Ching said the cost for paving is higher, but potentially can be offset by higher parking revenue.
Total cost of the piano lot work that includes lighting, fencing, drainage and minimal landscaping is about $2.7 million.
About a quarter of the site, or roughly 235 parking spaces, would be available for vehicle storage that has been popular with nearby car dealers.
Ching said he anticipates being able to recoup close to or all of the remediation expense from parking fees.
Among interested parking users are federal workers in a nearby building and the University of Hawaii medical school, Ching said. HCDA anticipates being able to earn nearly $900,000 a year if it can lease 70 percent of the stalls for an average $70 a month per stall.
There is no timetable for long-term development of the site. But Ching said that given the master-planning process and availability of financing and legislative support, it could be five years before a long-term plan for the area can be implemented.
Matson, the Kakaako Makai Community Planning Advisory Council member, said the HCDA is ramming through an uninspired plan for the piano lot despite what she believes is a better option: a flagship farmers’ market for Honolulu.
The advisory council submitted its own proposal for the site that meets pollution control standards and includes the farmers’ market, a botanical garden, park space and 256 parking stalls.
HCDA estimated the advisory council’s plan would cost $3 million to $4 million to develop plus $500,000 in annual maintenance. Matson said the estimate is inflated, and that the council’s own estimate is $1.9 million with minimal maintenance costs.
Ching said the council’s proposal also would have lower potential revenue than the parking lot plan. Ching also said it’s inappropriate to jump ahead with a long-term use for the site without finishing the master-planning process that will determine the best uses for the piano lot and surrounding parcels.
Matson said the council’s piano lot proposal may be a feature of the eventual area master plan, but that it also makes more sense even as an interim use.
"We’re looking at ways to get the community involved in stewardship of this area," she said. "We’re looking at ways to save the taxpayers a lot of money."
Wayne Takamine, acting chairman of the advisory council, suspects the piano lot is being paved to set it up for easier future commercial development.
Takamine said that if the lot were capped with dirt and planted with grass, it would be harder for the agency to remove a parklike setting from public use for commercial development.
"Grass means park, and park means cannot develop," he said.