To Honor the Past and Elevate Hawaiian Culture and Values
January 1, 2023

By: Ryan Kawailani Ozawa

A vision for OHA’s Land at Hakuone

Live, work, play.” It’s a mantra chanted by the enlightened civil engineer, the staccato slogan of every modern developer, the three magic ingredients of an ideal community. Residential, commercial, and recreation – the latter an array of amenities to improve quality of life.

The phrase “live, work, play” was certainly the pitch from the developers of Kakaʻako from the continent who audaciously retained the “village” brand to describe their gleaming glass towers – each given an elegant, atmospheric Hawaiian name – and their increasingly claustrophobic urban canyons.

Today, the Howard Hughes Corporation is only 10 skyscrapers in to its 60-acre “master-planned community in the heart of Honolulu.” Glossy sales brochures still say “live, work, play,” painting a cozy picture of urban living for the lucky owners of some 30,000 luxury condos.

But insofar as any sense of “village” living has developed among its luxury residences, it certainly bears no resemblance to the close-knit, nurturing, sustainable kaiāulu of ancient Hawaiʻi.

The “live, work, play” vision for a place is a clever and compelling one. The key question is: a place for whom?

What could be

For the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), “village” is not a marketing term. And OHA’s vision for Hakuone – the name given to its future development at Kakaʻako Makai – is one grounded in genuine Native Hawaiian values and dedicated to creating a place that will improve the quality of life for all Native Hawaiians.

Native Hawaiians were living sustainably long before the first Western urban planner picked up a pencil. Community and ʻohana were built into everything, from the complete ecosystem of an ahupua’a – which provided everything needed to thrive – to the concept of a kīpuka, a cultural oasis, where the traditions and teachings of our ancestors could be shared and celebrated.

This is the vision of Hakuone: a uniquely Hawaiian oasis in urban Honolulu that welcomes all people, from keiki to kūpuna, with enriching cultural, recreational and educational public uses. And it is ideally located amidst Honolulu’s most diverse and vibrant communities, putting everything local residents need within reach.

OHA and its partners want to create a thoughtful, mixed-use urban village built by and for locals. Although the master plan is still in the very early stages of development, every component will emphasize education and the perpetuation of our culture – including respect for the land, the ocean and its resources.

For Hakuone, a Hawaiian sense of place is not a slogan, but a deeply held ideal.

Imagine a Hawaiian cultural center featuring practice and performance space, a commercial kitchen, and space for large gatherings. Farmers’ markets, a fish market, restaurants, and stores featuring Hawaiian products. Art galleries, workshops, and maker spaces. A medical clinic and other health care facilities that include traditional Hawaiian healing practices. Daycare for both keiki and aging kūpuna.

Early visualizations of Hakuone include ample open space, parks and greenways featuring native and endemic trees and plants, walking paths, and a waterfront boardwalk. Every building will prioritize sustainable building practices – renewable energy, energy efficiency, gray water reclamation, and more. There will be ample parking and multiple transit options.

Most importantly, the Hakuone plan includes a full spectrum of housing options. In fact, residential development is a requirement, needed to complete the vision of a whole community, as well as to make the rest of the project possible. Limited higher-end residences will allow Hakuone to provide affordable and workforce development housing to the broader community, and to fund a broad menu of neighborhood amenities.

Hakuone could become a source of abundance and pride for our lāhui and help the Native Hawaiian and local community in myriad ways: housing that is within our reach, economic development, neighborhood beautification, and preservation and promotion of Hawaiian culture.

All of these things are possible. But one thing stands in our way.

A flawed deal

Things in Hawaiʻi were quite different in 2012. The Howard Hughes Corporation had only just taken over Ward Village two years prior, its ambitious development plans still forming. The state was still digging its way out of a $1.8 billion deficit and recovering from the indignity of “Furlough Fridays.”

It was during this budget crisis that the Hawaiʻi State government made OHA an offer it couldn’t refuse.

There was no question that the state was far behind in its required payments to OHA of its 20% pro rata share of ceded land revenues, even as the question as to which lands qualified was being argued in court. The Legislature had determined in 2006 that OHA was due $15.1 million per year (an interim allocation), plus over $73 million for previous underpayments. As the dispute over these numbers continued, the debt to OHA continued to grow.

In order to settle back payment claims spanning 1978 through 2012, the state offered OHA 30 acres of land across 10 parcels in Kakaʻako.

Although not all contiguous properties and only a few of them oceanfront, the state assured OHA they were worth $200 million. Given only until the end of the legislative session to decide, and seeing the state’s empty coffers, OHA took the deal and Act 15 was passed with promises of future entitlements.

These parcels have remained undeveloped for a decade, while just a few blocks ma uka, nearly a dozen Ward Village towers now pierce the sky. To be sure, OHA’s plans for what is now called Hakuone have shifted and evolved over time.

But more critically, that $200 million deal in 2012 has proven to be deeply flawed.

There is significant degradation in the core infrastructure of the much-touted oceanfront parcels. Unsurprisingly, the state had, even then, deferred important maintenance to the bulkhead, or retaining wall, that protects properties from ocean waves and erosion.

These were problems that were known to the state for decades before the deal, but not disclosed at the time. To upgrade the bulkhead to modern standards will cost OHA tens of millions of dollars – money that should have been spent by the state during its long dominion over the area.

Additionally, the state’s $200 million valuation of the land assumed that OHA would be able to fully capitalize on its highest and best use, which should have included the same rights afforded to Howard Hughes Corporation across the street.

However, because an earlier development plan that involved resort development rightfully prompted public outcry, a law was passed in 2006 banning residential development in the area.

The state promised OHA that there would be companion legislation to Act 15 to restore the right to build housing.

But that never happened.

This rendered OHA unable to realize anything close to the $200 million that the state claimed the parcels were worth. A financial analysis and renewed due diligence are underway now to determine the true value of the land.

Had the state simply written OHA a check for $200 million, the agency could have earned an additional $200 million today based on a 7% average market rate of return. Instead, 30 acres of supposedly prime coastal land remains largely untapped. There is no doubt the state has fallen far short of its promises to OHA.

Today, the State of Hawaiʻi clearly has the resources to make things pono. Our lawmakers need only find the courage to give Native Hawaiians a true opportunity to create our own “live, work, play” community – the same opportunity previous lawmakers eagerly gave to developers from the continent who court foreign investors.

Making things pono

Hakuone is not a mere real estate development. It represents, at long last, a complete and robust community of our own design, to support and uplift our people and culture, and to finally provide a vibrant home and center of civic life for Native Hawaiians. A center that everyone can enjoy.

This incredible opportunity started with what seemed like an insurmountable debt owed by the state to the Hawaiian people. The transfer of 30 acres of land that will be used to build Hakuone was no small gesture. But there is a lot more to be done.

Even the artistic renderings of a future Hakuone stand in stark contrast to the cold reality of its neighbors across the street, both in intent and design. Local kamaʻāina, not wealthy foreign real estate investors, are to be the beneficiaries of the work behind and ahead of us. Hawaiians are owed this opportunity to create a community of our own on the land we once stewarded, designing – and building – as we see fit.

To realize the “live, work, and play” vision for Hakuone, you need people to actually live there. And though few vestiges of local life in Kakaʻako remain, we need to remember that the neighborhood was once the home of notable Hawaiians like Gabby Pahinui and Aunty Genoa Keawe.

People, ultimately, are the core of every community.

A state law, thrown up in defense against a long-forgotten resort developer, now prevents OHA from building residential units for Hawaiians and other local families – despite the sprawling development unfolding across the street. The law was, and is, a restriction that greatly reduces the actual value of the land.

When the 2012 deal was made, lawmakers promised to change the law – but that never happened. Meanwhile, our civic leaders readily welcomed the erection of condo towers with individual units priced in the millions and out of reach for the majority of Native Hawaiians and other local people.

Hawaiʻi’s leaders must fully meet their longstanding obligation to our Indigenous people and allow OHA to greatly broaden the mix of residential options in Kakaʻako.

Honolulu remains at a crossroads and needs to consider its past, present, and future. Hakuone will honor the past and elevate Hawaiian culture and values; it will be designed and built in Hawaiʻi by local experts and local workers and will prioritize local needs.

It’s time to finally let Native Hawaiians do what’s best for Hawaiʻi.