University of Hawaii says it’s not the reason veterans home plan changed
University of Hawaii officials said they have been unfairly blamed as the reason for another state agency abruptly shifting plans for a veterans home to a historic site in Aiea.
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University of Hawaii officials said they have been unfairly blamed as the reason for another state agency abruptly shifting plans for a veterans home to a historic site in Aiea that has rankled some community members.
UH officials said Monday that the university is still willing to let the state Office of Veterans’ Services develop the $70 million facility on vacant UH land next to Leahi Hospital near Diamond Head.
At an Aiea Neighborhood Board meeting two weeks ago, Col. Ron Han, Veterans’ Services director, said UH wanted to do something else — possibly faculty housing — with the Diamond Head site after several years of discussing the veterans home project there.
“It looked very definitive that it was going to happen,” Han said about a deal with UH. “We were dead ready to go on that piece of property. But there were higher echelons that said, ‘We want to look at this property for something else.’”
UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said the university remains willing to lease the Diamond Head site for the veterans home project and has no other plans for the property.
Meisenzahl provided a copy of a July 12 “letter of intent” from UH to the state Department of Defense offering the 2.5-acre site site for development of the veterans home under a long-term land lease subject to approval from the UH Board of Regents.
In the letter, UH President David Lassner said, “Please do not hesitate to let me know how we can help make this vitally needed facility a reality.”
“We had been committed,” Meisenzahl said. “We were basically told we were not needed anymore.”
Han did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
Roy Amemiya, the city’s managing director, said his understanding from the state was that the Diamond Head site fell through, so city administration officials agreed to sell the Aiea site to the state for the veterans home project.
“As far as the (city) administration is concerned, we feel it is a very worthy project,” Amemiya said, adding that a sale would be subject to City Council approval.
Han explained to Aiea community members at the neighborhood board meeting two weeks ago that his office needed a new site quickly after the federal government approved
$40 million for the 120-bed veterans home project in August with a condition that his agency have a site and construction drawings in hand and could pick a contractor by March.
Veterans’ Services commissioned architectural drawings for a two-story building and intends to buy the 7-acre Aiea site from the city.
The Aiea site was once part of the Aiea Sugar Mill and has long been planned as a community development project to help preserve the area’s plantation heritage.
A 2002 master plan produced for the city envisions development including a community center documenting the area’s sugar plantation history, an outdoor performance area, an art center, meeting rooms, retail shops, a sports field, a dog park and gardens as part of a “town center” on roughly half the property. The other half was largely slated for senior housing tied to a requirement for federal funds that helped the city buy the property for $8.9 million.
The site today is a park because money to fulfill the vision has been tough to obtain, though a public library that was part of the master plan opened in 2014 on 2 acres the state bought in 2003.
The sugar mill dated to 1898 and was once part of a 4,000-acre sugar cane plantation in the area. The founder of Crazy Shirts, Rick Ralston, bought 19 acres connected with the mill in 1994 with the intent to preserve and renovate the site for use as the company’s headquarters and factory. Ralston abandoned his plan after running into financial difficulties, and the city bought part of the site for the community development project.
Some Aiea residents oppose the veterans home plan, though Aiea Community Association President Claire Tamamoto suggested developing the veterans home on an upper portion of the mill site instead of senior housing as a compromise that would still allow the long-envisioned town center to be built.