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Builders prove rail-shy

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    Plans for a rail station area near Leeward Community College include the development of low-density housing and a Pearl Harbor historic trail.

It’ll be years before rail transit-oriented development becomes a reality, but the planning has already started.

Transit-oriented development "will have long-range impact," said Rajeev Bhatia, principal of Dyett & Bhatia, one of the consulting firms contracted to create the development plans, and also to create a methodology for changing the city’s current land-use zoning and planning laws. "It’s not going to happen tomorrow, and then it’ll take even more time after that."

So far, only the wide-open East Kapolei area has the most firmed-up plans set. Plans for other, more developed areas like Waipahu and Aiea are near completion.

The centerpieces of the East Kapolei plan include the Ho’opili community project on 1,554 acres of Ewa farmland, as envisioned by the local Schuler Division of Texas-based developer D.R. Horton; the University of Hawaii-West Oahu campus; and the Kroc Community Center.

The state Land Use Commission recently gave the green light to reconsider the long-pending Ho’opili plan. Two years ago the commission voted down the project because it wasn’t properly phased.

The project also includes a program calling for more than 250 acres of land to be dedicated to food production. The program is overseen by Dean Okimoto of Nalo Farms, who says it "takes us back to how we used to live in Hawaii."

Developer interest in other areas along the 20-mile route has been from low to cautious. City planning officials say they’ve had more meetings with private landowners and developers in recent months than they have in the past.

Transit-oriented development is a key economic component of developing rail lines. In Oregon, Portland’s first rail lines began service in 1986, but officials there "didn’t recognize the power of rail to shape development," said Jill Detweiler, property development manager for TriMet, the transportation public agency there.

About three years before new rail lines went into service in 1998, TriMet officials began raising the profile of development opportunities as they sought federal funding for the project.

"Getting there in advance of development will shape what will happen," Detweiler said. "Sometimes when you’re not able to do that, things will build out as automobile oriented, and then it never goes away."

Still, developer interest didn’t begin until actual construction on the rail lines started, she said.

Terry Ware, transit-oriented development administrator in Honolulu, said that’s no surprise, particularly because developers are adverse to risk.

"Each area where development occurs, it’s going to respond to the most obvious market trend," he said. "The more complex development is going to take some time. The big-box retailers — Target, Walmart — that’s probably not going to be what you see initially."

For example, the Middle Street station area includes a correctional center and several buildings with industrial uses, which doesn’t make it friendly to new development. Kalihi residents in a recent workshop expressed hopes to relocate the correctional facility, but according to a market opportunities study of the area, there are plans to expand it.

Many industrial properties under the real estate management firm Robinson Trust have tenants, so the study concluded that it could be "some time" before the properties are ready to be redeveloped for transit development.

"The reality is that those landowners are getting very little vacancies," Ware said. "There’s really no place for those people to move. Over time there might be some migration to Campbell Industrial, but that’s all new buildings so they’d be paying higher rates. And now you’ve created another traffic problem by sending people way out to Campbell."

Plans for station areas around Aiea and Pearl City include:

» Pearl Highlands, with proposed bicycle paths along Waiawa Stream, medium-density housing a quarter-mile from the station, a neighborhood park makai of Acacia Road and a transit plaza at the corner of Pearl Highlands Center.

» Leeward Community College, with proposed mixed-use development on existing surface parking area mauka of the campus as well as low-density housing.

Bhatia, who is based in San Francisco, said developers are still questioning whether rail will happen. But once the reality of rail becomes apparent, developers will hit the tables to strategize how to capitalize on the growth.

"From a geographical perspective, rail has an ability to reach a huge number of people on the island, which is so unlike anywhere in the U.S.," Bhatia said. "The opportunity for us to integrate land use and transportation is tremendous. That should benefit the quality of life for everyone."


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