The developer of a planned a luxury condominium in Hawaii Kai that drew protests over the treatment of cultural artifacts on the site has agreed to sell part of the land at the heart of the controversy to a community group for preservation.
The tentative deal involves the roughly 250-unit project recently renamed Hale Ka Lae from Hale Alii, at the corner of Keahole Street and Hawaii Kai Drive.
If completed, the sale will help advance the long-delayed project, which enjoyed early support from the Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board before trouble over the cultural site erupted.
Under the agreement, the nonprofit Livable Hawaii Kai Hui would buy five acres of the 8-acre project site for $650,000.
The 5-acre parcel, which is zoned for preservation use and contains ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs and other historical features connected with a pre-contact Hawaiian village, had been slated to become a private landscaped park with features including lagoon-style waterways, floating cabanas and a sand-edged pool with ozone-purified water.
The condominium would still be built on the three acres as previously planned, though it is being redesigned. Construction is anticipated to begin early next year, according to the developer.
Cultural preservationists hail the agreement as something that will create a cultural piko, or central point, for Hawaii Kai instead of a private playground that would have destroyed many historical features.
"It’s a huge turnaround," said Ann Marie Kirk, a Livable Hawaii Kai Hui member. "We went from being threatened with being arrested and threatened with lawsuits to a place where the community has a chance to acquire this sacred place in perpetuity. It’s pretty amazing. This is so great."
Monica Salter, a spokeswoman for Hale Ka Lae developer Hanwha Engineering & Construction, said the company is pleased to be working with the nonprofit on a plan that will enhance the community and the condo project.
But because some aspects of the transaction are not final, the developer reserved additional comment.
The sale is not a done deal, but Livable Hawaii Kai Hui is hopeful it will be completed.
The nonprofit partnered with another nonprofit, the Trust for Public Land, to help facilitate the purchase.
Trust for Public Land has submitted applications for two $325,000 grants from the state Legacy Land Conservation Program and the city Clean Water and Natural Lands Fund.
Laura Hokunani Ka’akua, native lands coordinator for the trust, said the site has a rich cultural value given the presence of a heiau complex, ancient dwelling sites, petroglyphs, agricultural terraces, a coconut grove, remnants of a spring-fed well and a wetland that is home to the endangered alae ula, or Hawaiian moorhen.
"This site is really like a treasure," Ka’akua said. "It’s in the middle of Hawaii Kai, one of the most built-out communities on Oahu. This little 5-acre property, which is walking distance from a Costco, is a reminder of our ancestral past."
A stewardship plan will be created to restore and preserve the site, which could include rebuilding parts of the Hawea Heiau complex some historians believe was on the site.
Though state officials believe Hawea Heiau was not located on the site, many other archeological features on the property have been well documented by surveys over the last few decades. Other features are believed to have been destroyed by previous owners of the property.
At one time the 5-acre parcel was to become a public park, but that requirement was eliminated by the city. Condos may not be built on the site because it is preservation-zoned land.
The Hale Alii development plan originated with Mike Klein, a local developer primarily involved in affordable housing projects.
Klein became interested in building affordable homes on the site about a decade ago to fulfill a city requirement for affordable housing tied to surrounding housing projects built without affordable units.
In 2003, Klein completed the 31-unit Kaluanui Senior Apartments on an adjacent site.
As a way to help finance additional affordable housing, Klein proposed building them with a mix of luxury condos. Recreational amenities were planned on the preservation parcel as part of the condo complex. Units in an initial phase were listed for $1.3 million to $3.7 million.
Last year, cultural preservationists grew alarmed after Klein began grading part of the 5-acre parcel without proper approvals, including an archaeological monitoring plan.
Livable Hawaii Kai Hui member Kirk and other concerned residents claimed the work destroyed some important features, though the developer had approval from the state Historic Preservation Division to destroy all but three petroglyphs and the wetland.
Kirk said she and others trying to document more features on the site were threatened with arrest by Klein.
Several area residents and a few neighborhood board members also had received letters from an attorney on behalf of Hale Alii Development threatening legal action if they did not remove or refrain from making alleged false and defamatory statements about the project.
Last year, Hanwha Engineering & Construction, a South Korean investor, replaced Klein as the project’s lead developer and hired Mike Greco, a former construction vice president with Chicago-based developer Fifield Cos., as chief operating officer.
Greco publicly pledged about six months ago to end the discord, and began meeting with Livable Hawaii Kai Hui and other community members.
Those meetings progressed into negotiations to sell the preservation parcel.
Elizabeth Reilly, a neighborhood board member and president of Livable Hawaii Kai Hui, said the developer took a "huge step" by agreeing to sell the parcel.
"It’s quite impressive," she said. "This speaks volumes as it relates to good work between the community and development when you sit at the table with a willing attitude."