A Korean-American nonprofit group is exploring the idea of a cultural center and museum on the block that includes the state Department of Agriculture’s King Street headquarters.
But the plan has prompted strong concerns from state Agriculture Board Chairman Scott Enright, who said the project, should it proceed, would displace not just a parking lot, but the state Plant Pathology Lab, which recently underwent $1 million in renovations and would cost an estimated $10 million to relocate or replace.
Meanwhile, City Council Chairman Ernie Martin wants the city to contribute $500,000 to the Kosong Foundation for planning and development of the project, money that would come out of the the city’s $2.3 billion operating budget. Enright is expected to reiterate his concerns to the Council Budget Committee, which will be deliberating on the city budget at 9 a.m. Tuesday.
The project is on the block bounded by King, Keeaumoku, Young and Kaheka streets in an area believed to have the largest concentration of Korean immigrants in the state.
Project details are vague, however, and it is unclear, based on an early rendering submitted by Kosong, whether next-door Pawaa In-Ha Park is supposed to be part of the development.
Pawaa In-Ha Park has been embraced by local Korean community leaders who have come to view it as honoring Hawaii’s Korean immigrants. So Suk Ko, president of the Kosong group, also heads the Pawaa In-Ha Park Committee, which has helped beautify and maintain the park.
In 2014 the state Board of Land and Natural Resources gave Kosong a two-year right-of-entry permit for a 33,872-square-foot parcel, part of the Agriculture Department campus, in order to conduct soil sampling and other activities tied to an environmental assessment for its project. The study is part of Kosong’s investigation into whether the site is suitable and viable for its Michuhol Museum and International Center, according to documents filed with the Land Board.
An application filed with the board says that in order to plan and develop the Michuhol Museum and International Center, the Kosong Foundation will be “receiving funding from private donors and international governments.” Project cost was estimated to be $20 million.
Kosong’s latest publicly available federal 990 tax exemption filing, in 2014, reports $5,460 in revenues and $1,469 in expenses.
The Land Board application said the museum and international center’s focus will be on promoting Asian-Pacific arts and culture.
“Unlike other community centers in Honolulu, MAMIC will celebrate and strengthen all Asia Pacific Rim communities,” the application said. “It will be open to the public and will be a community center for residents and visitors to learn and participate in arts and culture from the Asia Pacific region. It will feature art and cultural classes, workshops and digital media stations.”
The center would also “serve to promote and share Hawaii art and culture to visitors and visiting governments” and “showcase our cultural diversity.” Additionally, it would “help revitalize the area both visually and economically.”
The Land Board staff report that accompanied the 2014 application said the parcel for which the right-of-entry was being sought is being used as a parking lot for HDOA employees working next door. There is no mention of a Plant Pathology Lab, even though it appears that the rendering submitted by Kosong shows the lab building would be covered by the new center.
But when Kosong went before the Land Board in March for a two-year extension of its right-of-entry permit, Enright submitted written testimony that said the site includes the Plant Pathology Lab.
“The Plant Pathology Lab is the only facility of its kind in the state and the Pacific region,” Enright wrote. “It is dedicated to the identification, evaluation and testing of beneficial biological agents to combat plant diseases and pests that are adversely affecting Hawaii’s agricultural industry and the environment.”
A new facility would cost an estimated $10 million, Enright said. “Therefore, we oppose any project that proposes to demolish the existing lab, impair the use of the existing lab in any way or would require the construction of a new facility.”
Enright also told the Land Board that in the last two years, the department was not notified by Kosong or its consultant about either the proposed extension for the right-of-entry permit or the status of the environmental assessment.
“As proposed, the museum will involve the demolition of and/or significant encroachment upon vehicle parking stalls, buildings and related structures carrying out research and testing of great importance to Hawaii’s agricultural industry,” Enright said.
Despite Enright’s concerns, the Land Board approved the time extension of the right of entry through March 31, 2018.
DLNR spokeswoman Deborah Ward said, “Our last understanding was that it was for the parking lot area only.” Foundation officials said they would build the museum “with parking in and below the museum,” she said, with a certain number of stalls designated for Agriculture Department employees.
“The remainder of the museum would be on the city’s park parcel adjacent to the HDOA parking lot,” Ward said. “That is what was discussed.”
Ward emphasized that the Land Board had given an OK for the right of entry only. After completing its due diligence, “the same entity has to come before the board asking for a lease, if that’s appropriate.”
Kosong President So Kuk So speaks little English, and during a 2014 interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser about the cleanup of Pawaa In-Ha Park, she required translation from her daughter, Minnie Ko.
Minnie Ko, who is now living in South Korea, said she is not with the foundation in an official capacity, but said, “I don’t think anything has been decided, as far as I know.”
She referred questions about the current status of the project to a Hawaii consultant hired to conduct the environmental assessment. That consultant could not be reached for comment Friday.
Ko, onetime executive director of Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s Office of Economic Development, said that from a historical perspective she was still living in Hawaii when the Kosong project was endorsed by former Gov. Neil Abercrombie and former Agriculture Board Chairman Russell Kokubun.
“They were looking for a new home for the Department of Agriculture because they’d really outgrown that space,” Ko said.
After Gov. David Ige’s administration entered office in December 2014, several meetings were held with the governor and Enright, “and they were for the project as well.”
Ige spokeswoman Jodi Leong said the governor had nothing to add to the comments made by Enright or DLNR’s Ward.
Council Chairman Martin is seeking to provide $500,000 from city coffers to pay for “planning and development of a cultural and arts center to be located at or near the Pawaa In-Ha Park.”
Kosong members have adopted Pawaa In-Ha Park in recognition of the sister-city relationship between Incheon, South Korea, and Honolulu, Martin said.
“The first wave of immigrants from Korea were from the city of Incheon,” he said. “We have a very significant Korean community in Hawaii, and I think it’s the only community that doesn’t have a facility of that stature.”
Martin, like Ko, also said discussions about using a section of the HDOA campus for a cultural facility began when Abercrombie was governor. Martin said it was his understanding that the Ige administration is also supportive of the project and that Kosong members have also met with Caldwell.
There has been talk of the possibility of incorporating affordable housing units into the Korean center, Martin said. “I think the mayor is also supportive of that initiative.”
Martin said state officials indicated no Agriculture Department facilities would be replaced if the state felt it was necessary to keep them there.
Gary Kurokawa, Caldwell’s deputy budget director, said if the Council includes the $500,000 appropriation, the mayor will consider the situation carefully before deciding whether to release the money. “The mayor has always said that he supports the Korean community,” he said. But like other grant proposals, budget officials need to vet the proposal.
Caldwell has repeatedly refused to release money Council members have allocated to nonprofit groups that have bypassed a grants-in-aid advisory committee established in the City Charter.
Kurokawa said Council members have attempted twice in recent years to appropriate money for Pawaa park projects, but those appropriations were not released for various reasons.