It’s one thing for the city to buy land along the route of its 20-mile long rail project in West Oahu, where there are big, undeveloped parcels owned by a few interests, including government agencies, the Navy and the University of Hawaii.
It’s another thing entirely for members of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation’s acquisition team to attempt the same thing in urban Honolulu, where the route is dotted with smaller properties that are home to established businesses and are owned by a significantly larger and varied set of landowners.
Three urban Honolulu landowners, frustrated and confused about the lack of information on the project will eventually affect them, aired their concerns to the City Council Budget Committee Sept. 18. Others voiced uncertainty to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
HART official Morris Atta told the Budget Committee that one of the goals of the acquisition team is to "continue to communicate and educate effectively" with landowners and the community. Longtime Kakaako businessman Cliff Garcia said that’s far from what’s been happening in his dealings with HART.
Garcia, who owns Tropical Lamp & Shade Co. on Queen Street, said he was first told by former transit chief Toru Hamayasu in 2010 that rail would not affect his property.
Then, in late February, a neighbor who attended a community meeting told him that HART’s plan included the need for a 1,020-square-foot aerial easement of Garica’s property, which, while not hindering his current business, could make it much more difficult to redevelop or sell the land. Garcia said he received a letter from HART on March 6 reaffirming that change in its route plan.
But on June 18, Garcia received via certified mail a letter from HART telling him of its intent to purchase what appeared to a substantially larger chunk of his property. Garcia said a HART official verbally told him afterward that the final plan had not been completed and that people would be getting back to him.
They didn’t do so until Thursday.
Scott Ishikawa, HART spokesman, said Friday that the city is seeking 2,344 square feet of airspace over Garcia’s property in total. The original, smaller figure he was given represented only the actual footprint of the rail line through the aerial space of his property, not the actual amount that HARTis securing, he said.
Adding to the confusion, Garcia told the Star-Advertiser he might be agreeable to selling his entire parcel "if the price is right."
HART Executive Director Daniel Grabauskas said HART initially offered to buy the whole property but revised its plan when Garcia indicated he wanted to stay in business. Garcia said he never received such an offer.
HART officials say they need to acquire a total of 230 parcels from East Kapolei to Ala Moana for the entire project. As of Aug. 27, it had acquired 68 properties, or about 30 percent, the HART board was told at its Sept. 11 meeting.
The good news for HART: The 68 properties represent about 71 percent of the land needed for the project.
The bad news: Of the 184 parcels left that are needed from the airport to Ala Moana Center, only 39 properties, or 21 percent, have been acquired.
Garcia is not the only property owner dealing with rail anxiety.
Gary Onishi’s family owns two properties on Queen Street near Garcia’s. Onishi’s tenants include the recently relocated home of Pake Zane’s Antique Alley and a performing arts studio. Current HART plans call for a rail column to be placed right smack in front of his parking lot, he said.
Onishi said an engineer he hired to survey the situation told him the column could be moved without inconveniencing or adding to the cost of the project. But first his plan was dismissed, Onishi said, and then efforts to meet with HART officials again fell on deaf ears until this past week, after Onishi wrote to the Council and spoke with the Star-Advertiser.
"I’m hoping they are actually serious about helping," Onishi said.
Like Garcia, Onishi said he first found out about the rail column going through his property from a neighbor. Onishi said HART needs to take better care in its dealings with smaller merchants.
"The small businesses right now are really fragile," Onishi said. "People refuse to come when they see a traffic cone in front of a property, when they see a steel plate in front of a property."
Both Garcia and Onishi contend their properties and concerns are of lower priority than larger Kakaako property owners like the Howard Hughes Corp., which owns much of what was formerly Victoria Ward Properties, and General Growth Properties, which owns Ala Moana Center.
Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga said it doesn’t surprise her that smaller landowners are suspicious. She said she’s sat in on meetings when smaller landowners were told abruptly how HART’s plans for their properties had changed.
Grabauskas, however, flatly denied any favoritism.
"We really are trying to treat all property owners the same," he said. "We have a responsibility under the law to treat them all fairly."
As for lack of response or miscommunication with the community, Grabauskas said, "If there’s been a lack of communication for some folks, we’ll step it up."
While the general rail line has been set, there are some opportunities for slight moves in columns to accommodate landowners, he said. That the plan is still in flux helps property owners seeking changes in column location, Grabauskas told the Star-Advertiser.
Grabauskas said HART hopes to finalize design and routing by the end of the year and before it issues contracts for the second half of the guideway and rail stations.
"We are doing our utmost to work cooperatively with property owners and to accommodate them whenever possible as we move forward to try to build the project,"Grabauskas said. "We realize it’s a balancing act because we do need to make sure that we maintain schedule and keep within budget, and those two are sometimes competing interests and we attempt to do our best to walk that line."
Dexter Okada, president of U. Okada and Co. Ltd., told committee members that while the rail line is not slated to run directly onto his property, he’s worried it will wreak havoc on his business. An importer-exporter, Okada said he wants to know whether his business will be compensated if his ability to move chilled and frozen food products is adversely affected.
"Maybe (small businesses)can survive columns being part of their property," Okada said, "but can they survive the construction?"
Atta, HART’s right-of-way deputy director, said, however, that while HART would be responsible for helping with relocating costs of displaced businesses, financial losses caused by construction of a capital improvement project typically are not eligible for reimbursement. HARTdoes, however, try to minimize community impact through an outreach program, the transit officials said.
On the properties acquired to date, HART has paid out about $5.6 million less than originally projected. The total acquisition budget was $220 million.
Whether HART will be able to hold to that budget for acquisitions remains to be seen, however, given ever-escalating real estate prices on Oahu, Grabauskas said. "Certainly that’s a concern."