I couldn’t believe the news yesterday when Gov. Abercrombie announced a planned public-private development in Kakaako. His announcement contained what was perhaps the first public disclosure the project is planned to include a high-rise condo towering fully 50 percent higher than the state’s tallest existing building.
The governor, with his normal relentless optimism, seemed blissfully unaware or unconcerned that the new tower, if finally approved, will set a precedent inevitably leading to a general increase in future building heights across the city.
I don’t know if it’s good idea or not, but I do know that such a radical increase in building heights deserved full and open public discussion of its pros and cons. The public deserved to be clearly informed that such a proposal was on the table, and have an opportunity to consider the best arguments for and against. Instead, it was slipped through the Hawaii Community Development Authority with minimal, if any, opportunity for the public to understand what was being proposed and what is at stake.
Governor Abercrombie was a member of the city council in the late 1980s when a Japanese company offered to build a convention center at no cost to the public in exchange for a variance allowing it to exceed what was then a 350-foot height limit. The resulting public furor was a key factor in scuttling that proposal. I guess that memory has faded in the governor’s mind.
Last night, I searched through agendas and minutes of prior HCDA meetings and failed to find any mention of a plan to allow building heights that will dwarf the city’s current 400-foot height limit.
Even the agenda for yesterday’s meeting failed to give the public any notice at all that it included Step One in the redrawing of Honolulu’s skyline.
Item 3 under the heading, “Kakaako Decision Making,” read simply:
3. Shall the Authority Authorize the Executive Director to Develop and Issue a Request for Proposal for a Mixed-Use TOD project on the Former Pohukaina School Site (690 Pohukaina Street, TMK: 2-1-051: 041)?
And with no further information readily available to the public about the agenda item, there was no realistic way to see this coming, although the governor was well aware of the proposal to blow through the current building height limit, since his testimony and public announcement were prepared in advance. But the public was left out in the cold.
I have to wonder whether there was enough public notice to meet the requirements of the sunshine law. Here’s a brief discussion from a 2007 opinion of the Office of Information Practices.
The clear purpose of the Sunshine Law’s notice provisions is to give the public the opportunity to exercise its right to know and to scrutinize and participate in the formation and conduct of public policy….
Given this purpose, OIP interprets section 92-7(a) to require that an agenda list each item the board intends to consider with sufficient detail and specificity to allow a member of the public to understand what the board intends to consider at the meeting and to decide whether to attend and to participate through oral or written testimony.
There are those in the development community who would like to see Honolulu look like Manhattan, a forest of high-rise towers that create their own environment. But for the past century, there have also been island residents who have fought to retain a sense of the island’s character, and each incremental increase in general building heights has triggered a battle between public aesthetics and private profits.
I don’t blame the governor for being blissfully unaware of the import of this one project. I do, however, blame his advisors for once again making it appear the governor is uninterested or unconcerned with what the public might think.
The comment attributed to Bruce Coppa, Abercrombie’s chief of staff and the state’s administrative director, seemed to me incredibly self-centered and dismissive of the broader public impact of a 650-foot skyline.
Coppa’s comment was reported by KHON:
“As a resident in Kakaako, Keola Lai, I live on the 28th floor and when I took a serious look at this, it doesn’t block our view,” said the governor’s Chief of Staff Bruce Coppa.
I’m glad it won’t block Coppa’s view, but that’s obviously not the end of the issue for the rest of us.
I made up a quick graph comparing the proposed new building to other prominent Honolulu high-rises. It’s rough, but gives an idea of what’s being proposed. Just click for a larger view.