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Bill to let OHA build Kakaako Makai condos advances

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The on-and-off battle over development of Kakaako Makai has flared up again as state lawmakers consider the latest measures aimed at allowing the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to put residential housing in the oceanfront region of urban Honolulu.

On Tuesday the Senate Committee on Hawaiian Affairs and Committee on Housing advanced SB 1334, which would lift the residential prohibition on six of OHA’s lots and allow for residential high-rises on two of the agency’s parcels on Ala Moana Boulevard.

The development of housing in Kakaako Makai was prohibited by the state Legislature in 2006 after Alexander &Baldwin Inc. proposed two condominium towers and whipped up a flurry of opposition.

OHA’s attempts to develop housing there dates back to 2012, when the state gave it 10 sizable Kakaako Makai properties to compensate for money owed to OHA from public-lands revenue, including a portion of funds generated by airports, state hospitals and public housing over nearly 35 years.

The Kakaako Makai properties — 30 acres in total — were originally estimated to be worth $200 million, and OHA has been aiming to cash in on them to help fund grants, services and other programs designed to improve the lot of Native Hawaiians.

But the same groups that battled the proposals in the past are at it again.

“This attempt to once again open up the shoreline for development and set a very bad precedent is deplorable, and those pushing this forward again must be stopped. This was not acceptable before, and it has not become acceptable now,” Audrey Lee of Malama Moana told lawmakers Tuesday afternoon during a virtual hearing.

OHA Board Chairwoman Carmen Hulu Lindsey said the agency envisions a mixed-use project that creates a Hawaiian sense of place, incorporates culture and commerce, and draws the community to a revitalized urban core.

But OHA will be unable to generate enough revenue from the Kakaako Makai lands to meet the rate of return expected of a $200 million investment without the ability to build residential projects, according to the agency’s planning and financial analysis.

“Without housing, our project cannot provide a robust live, work and play community — as seen in the mauka Kakaako parcels,” Lindsey said.

Under terms of the bill, the height limit would be raised to 400 feet on the two parcels on Ala Moana Boulevard, and OHA would be allowed to convey them to third parties for development.

According to OHA, SB 1334 would enable the agency to better meet the range of housing needs of Native Hawaiians and the broader public, and it is already evaluating multiple project scenarios that include but are not limited to affordable, workforce, kupuna and market-rate housing.

Lindsey, the OHA board’s Maui trustee, said the bill is also about fairness to Native Hawaiians, who must be afforded the same opportunity to develop housing that landowners immediately mauka of OHA’s properties are.

Veteran Kakaako Makai development foe Ron Iwami, president of the nonprofit Friends of the Kewalos, told lawmakers that his group isn’t against OHA or the Hawaiian people.

“We’re against the principle of building private residences on public ocean-front land, with the ability to convey it to a third party so they can build. In my eyes, that amounts to selling the public land,” Iwami said.

“So, in other words, I’m saying whether it be A&B, OHA, Kam Schools or anybody else who wants to build there, we will fight for this principle,” he said.

Lee said the 2006 law the prohibited residential development in Kakaako Makai has protected the area from becoming “another Waikiki” and preserved it for the public’s enjoyment.

“Let us not take away that protection of free ocean access for the people,” she said.

In written testimony, Wayne Takamine, chairman of the Kaka‘ako Makai Community Planning Advisory Council, said a good business plan would allow OHA to make sustainable revenue and that creating a community center for the preservation of the Hawaiian cultural heritage would bring the highest returns for the Hawaiian community.

The bill, with technical amendments, was approved for recommendation by both five-member Senate committees. Meanwhile, an identical bill in the House has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

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