It’s a little ironic. One of the perks of riding your motorcycle to work is that finding an accommodating parking space is a little easier than it is for the car-dependent majority. And yet, what is it that’s been bedeviling motorcyclist Anthony Ching these days in his job as executive director of the Hawaii Community Development Authority? It’s a community protest over a parking lot.
The HCDA has been working lately on a range of issues, from the plans for state property at Kalaeloa in Leeward Oahu to a wetlands cleanup and the rebirth of agriculture in Heeia on the Windward side.
But there’s a reason why the HCDA office is located in Kakaako, and that’s because the central job of the agency is the redevelopment of that community. The issue most recently in the news has been the construction at the corner of Ilalo and Ahui streets on a parcel known as the "piano lot," owing to its shape.
By December, Ching said, 1,115 stalls of paid public parking will be available. That prospect has angered one community group that prefers its proposal of creating a landscaped combination park and marketplace area. But Ching believes his project is the more practical, temporary use of the site, which ultimately will become part of facilities for public recreation and cultural activities. Community members are invited to learn more about the long-range plans at a weeklong open house, Monday through Saturday at the HCDA, 461 Cooke St.
Ching has led the HCDA since January 2008, but has held posts dealing with land development for years, starting as a senior planner and then deputy director of the state Department of Health and ending with six years as executive officer of the state Land Use Commission. The land-use arena, and its public debates, is familiar turf.
Still, he hopes the open house will help people understand the difference between temporary and permanent plans for Kakaako’s future.
"Hopefully the community will see that while there’s an interim, there’s a greater vision that will actually meet their expectations for what this area should be," he said.
Question: Did the recession upend the development planning for Kakaako Makai?
Answer: Since the financing for the projects in the makai area will be likely more dependent on state bond financing and participation by nonprofits and the like, we’re not so much affected by the lack of the credit market. … The slow economy has reduced access to credit for developers. But the good part is, since we’re looking at public projects, then it’s not so much a function of credit access. It would be the state to step out to issue bonds for the project.
Q: What’s happening with the conflict over placing a parking lot in an undeveloped area where some residents say they want a park or farmers market?
A: For the next few years we’re going to be trying to figure out how to hold on here (in a slow economy). Then after that, if we have a plan and projects in mind, it would take at least one year to go through a legislative process, get an appropriation, another year to go through an RFP (request for proposal) process to solicit someone to build … and then that’s five years. And that’s in the best-case scenario in this type of economy to expect that significant public funds would be available to develop some of these projects. Given that, if I just left that lot vacant for five years, what would I get at the end of five years? I would get a lot of homeless camping out on it, I’d get a lot of complaints that the dust is blowing all over the place. … Now the reality is that in 2007, the Department of Health indicated that, "Hey, you had some great plans to develop that place but now you’re letting it sit fallow. The soil is contaminated, on that lot and on others. Because of that, the danger of that contaminated soil migrating into nearshore water or being accidentally ingested by kids playing in the dirt, you’re required to remediate that situation. You’ve also said that final plans have not yet been developed for that site. So what are you going to do?"
Q: So the paved lot will help by capping the soil. Could a farmers market go there temporarily, to bring in revenue?
A: In talking with the Hawaii Farm Bureau and the Department of Agriculture, they indicate that they’ve always had a desire for a centralized location for a farmers market. … They need parking, they could use toilet facilities and could use park ones which are right adjacent, and they would need certain other utilities such as water and power within the lot. We’re trying to put the water and power outlets within this lot to facilitate farmers market activities in this lot. However, the real vision should not be that we have a showpiece activity in a parking lot. The real vision should be that some of the public facilities that we look to develop can incorporate the farmers market concept. So the Legislature has already given us some directions that a cultural public market place be developed in this area, along with parking. So it is a part of the larger plan.
Q: Do you think the problem is that people don’t know what the big picture is?
A: In 2005, the community became very united and strident. No more luxury high-rises, and let’s take back our parks. Now I believe I told you what the historic use was … (pointing to a map) this area was reclaimed, this was an incinerator, this was a dump. … For people to say, "Let’s restore our parks," well, these 44 acres (of Kakaako Waterfront Park) were created, and we’re not taking away any park. Sometimes people get very emotional, and I can understand that. A loss of park land to asphalt! (The piano lot) was never a park, and it’s a convenient characterization that you are losing something to develop and change.
Q: So in the final plan you envision not a park but public facilities?
A: Public facilities, with parking. It will have some open space, and there will be grassed areas if we can. … Along the waterfront you typically have low-rise, because you don’t want to obstruct views, and they tend to be harbor-related, commercial and some cultural and some scientific types of things. To extend the feeling of the park, which has always been envisioned, you would look to extend the shoreline promenade wherever you can. … The promenade might also look to be meandering through this area, so it does become more vibrant and pedestrian-friendly in that respect. … Again the basic point is that we’re not losing park, we’re not paving over a park; we’re paving over a stinky, dirty contaminated lot.
Q: What was the soil contaminated with?
A: Lead, arsenic …
Q: From what operation?
A: Remember the corporation yard, the rubbish trucks? You service the rubbish trucks, oil gets on the ground, antifreeze, solvent … stuff that drains out of rubbish trucks, diesel, gas. Again, I respect the right of the public to desire appropriate change and envision a greener, more open-space type of paradise in urban. I think we’re continuing it. That’s the first thing we put in, the 44 acres. Those existing parks all were not there. Before, this was considered almost a candidate for (the Environmental Protection Agency’s) Superfund. So the fact that we have a park and now people take it for granted — OK. But then they (say), "Let’s have more green." … If you go down to the park now, what you have is a passive park with limited usage. It’s popular, it’s becoming more popular, but is it a destination point? The answer is no, not yet … If we add more vacant land but grass it over, will we improve the use of the area? The answer is no. You first need to have activities and critical mass. As there’s no housing allowed in the area, as the Legislature directs, then your activities are going to have to be entertainment, cultural events.
Q: Were there homeless families at the piano lot?
A: In January of this year, we started a beautification and outreach program in the area. Our census showed that there were 30 to 40 homeless in the makai area, along Ilalo and in the park. So we started this outreach program, and the intent was to reach to those people and offer them an alternative: emergency shelter as well as, more importantly, assistance and outreach and referral for other services, as well as practically some storage, laundry and personal care, showers, opportunity. And the reason was quite selfish, because the homeless were hanging up their laundry on the Acura fence. They were throwing it on my bushes in the park. So those aren’t good things, in any case, but it was also compassionate to reach out to the homeless. So we reached out and we found out some interesting things. One, the Marshallese and Chuukese that are there are not literate in their own language, let alone English. So it’s very difficult to communicate with them. They’re at a very raw state. … I believe there is a hard-core of homeless in the area. You might get some (into shelters), but it’s augmented by those coming from the city parks and the like. … We know who these guys are and, as compassionate as we try to be, they are resistant to outreach and services. You know, we’re not a social service agency, but we’re doing our best to be sensitive to their plight.
But I think, as this (census study) says, we (HCDA) need to be part of the solution, not be viewed as the solution. And so our part is to reach out to them and try to coordinate so that when our development projects and our public facility projects inevitably come, they will be displaced. Until then, they will find the nooks and crannies and try to be there.
We’re working with the Next Step people to try to tailor some programs such that they can still outreach, offer them work programs. … So perhaps this is one part of the solution, in that we’re efficient, we derive public benefit and we still steward our facilities and resources.