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Kaka'ako - On the rise - Mid-Honolulu City

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Kaka'ako is on the rise!

Here's a map of Existing and planned Kaka'ako residential projects


Sanford Zalburg gets a great view of Kaka'ako and its changing face from the lanai of his condo at Pi'ikoi Street and Ala Moana. The neighborhood is undergoing a residential building boom that is transforming the light industrial area into a desirable urban village.


Arshad Khan didn't hesitate when someone asked the best reason to live in Kaka'ako.

"The location is excellent," he said. "It's close to Waikiki, downtown, everywhere."

Khan, a 34-year-old real estate office worker who has lived in a Kaka'ako rental apartment for the past six years, is just one of thousands of people in the past few years who have traded the traditional dream of a yard and home in the suburbs for a place in town.

And there's going to be a lot more of them as the area continues to be transformed from a rundown light industrial tract to a highly desirable urban village.

City planners predict that Kaka'ako will be one of the fastest-growing residential areas on O'ahu over the next 25 years, with more than 25,000 people moving in, increasing the population by 178 percent, behind only several residential areas between 'Ewa Beach and Ko Olina.

"Residential development was always part of the vision for Kaka'ako, long before people started talking about smart growth or the new urbanism," said Daniel Dinell, executive director of the Hawai'i Community Development Agency, which supervises the area's development.

"Now, you're finally starting to see the manifestation of that vision," Dinell said. "The several hundred million dollars invested in the infrastructure is starting to pay off."

Almost a dozen residential projects, including rental units, urban lofts and $1 million-plus condos are being built or are on the drawing boards for the area, which for decades languished while communities on its flanks, Ala Moana, Waikiki and downtown Honolulu, flourished.

Luxury living in town

The Ko'olani luxury condominium complex, at right, is among the dozen or so residential projects under construction in Kaka'ako.


Much of the current movement is driven by Mainland investors or older Hawai'i residents eager to move back into town after years of fighting traffic and other problems in the suburbs.

"Eighty percent of our buyers are local empty-nesters," said Larry Fukunaga, the owner's representative for 909 Kapi'olani, a high-rise project set to start construction this year on the corner of Kapi'olani Boulevard and Ward Avenue.

Most are older residents able to parlay soaring equity in their homes and low interest rates into a suddenly affordable luxurious condominium closer to everything.

"These are people who are established and have some money. They want something more comfortable, more convenient and easier to take care of than what they have now," Fukunaga said.

Others worry that the building boom is leaving behind young professional buyers, the same ones who have traditionally driven the return-to-the-city-living trend across the Mainland.

"I'd love to be able to live in Kaka'ako, but I can't afford it," said Kelly Irvine, a 28-year-old architect who shares a home in 'Aina Haina.

"Most people my age who work in town want to live close by, even if it means living in a smaller apartment. They don't want to spend all their time in a car. Kaka'ako is a great place because it's right next to the theaters, the bars, the beach and the jobs. But the market right now is out of our price range," Irvine said.

Place of potential

Small shops, mostly specializing in auto repair, still do business in Kaka'ako, in the shadow of the luxury high-rises going up in the area near Ala Moana.


Kaka'ako has always been a place of potential.

Originally swamp land that was often covered with water at high tide, Kaka'ako was filled in and reclaimed in the 1880s to make way for new residences close to a growing downtown Honolulu.

Through the first half of the 1900s, it was a dynamic, growing, multi-racial residential community that included Hawaiian, Japanese, Portuguese, Caucasian, Chinese and Filipino families living in ethnic camps ranging in size from a few homes to several blocks.

Much as planners today anticipate Kaka'ako becoming a one-stop place to live, shop, work and entertain, the area 75 years ago was seen as something of a gathering place for sports, church groups, bon dances and other cultural activities.

"About 1945, though, the area went into a long, steady decline, with more and more people moving to the suburbs," Dinell said.

By the 1970s, most of the residents were gone and the area took on a run-down, low-grade industrial look that contrasted sharply with the growth going on in all directions. That's when the state stepped in, creating the HCDA and giving the agency wide authority to plan and develop a new Kaka'ako, first by putting in hundreds of millions of dollars in improvements to area sewers, streets and other infrastructure.

After several false starts, the plan finally seems to be working.

"Over the years there were a lot of announcements of plans that never came to fruition," said John Breinich, who moved into the area in 1991 and is head of the Ala Moana-Kaka'ako Neighborhood Board. "Now, it seems like all at once things are finally happening. It's nice to be in a community that has life and growth and expansion."

Many observers credit the latest residential growth to development of commercial and other projects in the makai part of the district. Those include the new campus of the University of Hawai'i medical school, a new cancer research center and a planned waterfront complex fronting Kewalo Basin.

"Most of us thought the area would be developed a lot sooner than this," said Fukunaga, whose first job out of college was an HCDA planner in 1979. "It took 25 years, but at last, the makai district is reaching a critical mass and the residential projects are starting to pop up on the mauka side."

Not quite like home

An empty lot at Kapi'olani Boulevard and Ward Avenue soon will be home to 909 Kapiolani, a mixed-use high-rise development.


With the boom, though, some planners worry that the area's design controls will be lessened in a rush to develop, sacrificing a pedestrian-friendly feel for wider roads, and sacrificing more affordable housing for quick profits.

"A lot of us with children like the idea that they could live in the city and enjoy it as much as we do," said Loren Matsunaga, a principal with the architecture firm Urban Works, which has had its offices in Kaka'ako for more than 20 years. "But right now it isn't affordable."

There are also fears that the area will lack a cohesive and pedestrian-friendly design as separate areas are built up in spurts by different landowners and more and more cars fill the area without more public transportation.

Dinell said HCDA has done a good job of encouraging diversity and design.

"There's a perception that it's only about luxury high-rises, but that's not the case," he said. "Over the years about 30 percent of the units have been reserved for rentals or affordable sales. There are a lot of silent buildings scattered through the area."

The agency also has insisted that pedestrian-friendly design elements be incorporated into both public and private projects.

"You can see it in the infrastructure. We've got very generous sidewalks, big shade trees and street-front designs that encourage activity," he said.

With increasing population, new problems are cropping up.

Noise and congestion are on the rise and Kaka'ako still lacks a supermarket of its own (not counting the old-time Hamada Store on Queen Street) and a traditional public elementary school (there are several private schools and a public charter school) within its district borders.

"Those are going to come," Dinell said. "There's a recognition that a school will be necessary at some point in the future, though it may not look like a traditional suburban school with a parking lot and playing field."

All of that development, though, is proving attractive to residents able to afford the luxury condos being built or fortunate enough to find an affordable residence in the area.

"It's noisy as hell sometimes, but I wouldn't think of going anywhere else," said 88-year-old

Sanford Zalburg, who bought a unit in the area's first high-rise building, 1350 Ala Moana, 33 years ago and hasn't left.

"We're lucky we found an affordable place. Otherwise, no way," added Russell Sunabe, a 50-year-old community college teacher who lives in a two-bedroom condo on Waimanu Street with his wife and two children.

"We like the location and really feel comfortable here. Sometimes, I still wish I had a big home or a yard, but I'm not willing to live in Kapolei or 'Ewa to do that," he said.


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