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State-led development can be risky proposition

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    Gov. John A. Burns plants “the first of many trees” in the development of Magic Island state park.

Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood," said Daniel Burnham, the urban planner who designed much of Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Burnham never came to Hawaii, but we have had our own grand schemes that now serve as a cautionary tale for some new state plans to get the state into the development business.

Magic Island, renamed Aina Moana or "land from the sea," was supposed to be the first of three big developer visions: islands from landfill.

The 1960s plan would turn living reefs into hotels. When John A. Burns became governor he stopped the plan with only the 35-acre peninsula having been built.

Burns, Dillingham Construction Co., Burns’ top political allies and the then-potent ILWU all squeezed the Legislature. The opposition had seen how locals were pushed out of Waikiki and feared that another string of hotels would take the last local beach at Ala Moana. In a chaotic scene, with charges that the House speaker "stopped the clock" to prevent a final voice vote after the midnight deadline, the resolution passed.

Magic Island became such a symbol for greed, overdevelopment, raw political power and an unheeding government that Burns was forced to recall the Legislature to roll back the resolution.

This happened shortly after another Hawaii grand plan: filling in Salt Lake. It was once Hawaii’s only natural lake. It covered 230 acres, it was mentioned as the one-time home of Pele and home to endangered waterfowl.

It was also fee-simple land that could be developed into homes and condos for Hawaii’s newly emerging middle class. It pitted the Democrats against Hawaiians, who had not yet found their voice, as well as conservationists and even the ILWU.

To squeeze in the development and fill in the lake, construction on conservation land would have to happen. As golf courses were an accepted use for conservation land, the debate was which is better: a lake for a few or a golf course for many.

"I believe there is no intent to destroy Salt Lake, but rather to set off a part of it through the construction of a golf course which makes some use of it in a manner that would enhance its beauty," Burns said.

In one of those beautiful Hawaii ironies, the Democrats now hold their Oahu county convention at the Honolulu Country Club at extinct Salt Lake, which now has bogeys, not buoys.

Today Democrats are looking to Act 55, signed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie in May. It creates a public land development corporation to launch "appropriate and culturally sensitive public land development programs."

The state corporation can buy, build and run "leisure, recreational, commercial, residential, timeshare, hotel office space and business facilities."

The purpose is to "make optimal use of public lands for the economic, environmental and social benefit of the people of Hawaii."

Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz did the heavy lifting to get the bill passed. He says Hawaii is stagnant, something needs to be done to get us back in the economic game, to get jobs and move.

"Hawaii has become so anti-business, we have gone too far," says Dela Cruz, who suggests the development of Lake Wilson into some sort of an eco-friendly bass fishing lodge as one project.

You can’t fault the enthusiasm and his argument makes sense. I just hope that the state keeps a picture of local Ala Moana beachgoers staring into the lanais of hotels, timeshares and high-priced hotels instead of the Pacific, or families fishing or hula halaus practicing on the banks of Salt Lake, before they rev up the bulldozers.


Richard Borreca writes on politics on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Reach him at

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