By Kayt Sukel
The city of Honolulu on the south shore of the Hawaiian island of Oahu has grown by leaps and bounds over the past century. Like any urban center, such changes came with their fair share of growing pains. But unlike most cities in the continental U.S., Honolulu, which means “sheltered harbor” in the native Hawaiian tongue, must contend with significant land scarcity, thanks to the ocean to the west as well as mountains and protected lands to the east.
This makes it more difficult to develop adequate affordable housing for city residents.
As noted in a 2017 study sponsored by the National Multifamily Housing Council and the National Apartment Association, estimates suggest a whopping 4.6 million new apartments are needed in the city by 2030 to keep up with demand. Coming up with ways to develop that much housing requires thinking outside the box, said Dean Minakami, executive director of the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp., an organization with a mission to help develop affordable housing across the islands.
“Honolulu has become so built up over the years,” said Minakami. “There’s a scarcity of land — and so you need to find ways to make the most of the land you have.”
The HHFDC’s former director, Janice Takahashi, said the agency conducted research to identify potential land parcels for development. Several years ago, it noted that a parcel of land belonging to the Hawaii State Judiciary in the Ala Moana neighborhood, known for its high-rises and bustling shopping center, was being underutilized. With plans for the development of a new Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation station nearby, it would be an excellent spot for family apartments.
“The Hawaii Judiciary had rights to this land — and the set-aside was tied to a juvenile center at that location,” she said. “But the Judiciary had just built a brand-new detention facility in Kapolei and were no longer using it for the purpose the original set-aside was given. It’s such an ideal site for housing — it had water, it had sewer, and it was ideally located because of transportation. So, we reached out to the Judiciary to propose a mixed-use project that would provide affordable apartments as well as juvenile judicial services.”
A new kind of mixed use
Mixed-use development is certainly not a new concept. Ashok Das, Ph.D., an associate professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, said, up until World War II, most cities supported the development of buildings with businesses on the lower floors and apartments above. Postwar flight to the suburbs inspired more widespread adoption of single-use zoning in urban areas, he said, but that is changing.
“There is the issue of land scarcity,” he said. “But the vast expansion of single-use zoning, particularly suburban residential zoning, has had adverse impacts on the environment. It’s also led to a decline in social capital in cities. We now see many developers, in cities all over the world, looking to bring mixed-use development back, particularly transit-oriented models, to address the housing crisis in urban areas, make urban housing more affordable, and support city communities.”
But while such projects typically mix retail and residential options, the idea of bringing together a government agency, particularly one involving a Judiciary application, with housing is a unique approach, said Minakami.
“This is very uncommon,” he explained. “I think it’s because of the logistics involved with getting funding since so many government agencies have different funding streams — it can be difficult to get them to line up.”
But state Rep. Scott Saiki, speaker of the Hawaii House of Representatives and government champion of the project, which would come to be known as the Hale Kalele complex, added that to make such a project a reality, all stakeholders had to come up with a plan that benefited all parties. And given the specific needs of the Judiciary and the HHFDC, that was a challenge.
“The Judiciary, at first, was reluctant to give up the site — it’s almost expected that the typical government response will be that agencies don’t want to give up what they have,” he explained. “So, finding a way that they could remain there and continue to provide services, even with the addition of housing, was essential to moving forward.”
Coming up with the right plan
While the Judiciary was no longer using the Ala Moana site as a youth detention area, it was still providing services at that location to at-risk youth.
“The Judiciary had a short-term residential program for nonviolent status offenders there,” said Saiki. “When Janice broached the concept of a new facility on that site, she was sure to mention the Judiciary’s component, which would include a residential program for at-risk kids as well as probation, tutoring, and counseling services.”
Once the Judiciary agreed to the new mixed-use development, the HHFDC turned to planning. Takahashi said having strong “political will” behind the project was important to getting it off the ground, but the right planning was essential to its ultimate success.
“One of the biggest factors was building trust between the HHFDC and the Judiciary,” she said. “It was important that they see we could meet their goals for the new facility as well as our own goals to create these 200 new affordable housing units. It took a bit of time, but it was worth it because the project was addressing two of the state’s most pressing needs: affordable rental housing and juvenile justice services.”
After putting out a request for proposal for planning and development, the HHFDC selected the Kobayashi Group, a local real estate developer known for developing luxury high-rises, to help satisfy those myriad requirements.
“Rental housing is pretty bread and butter at this point,” said Takahashi. “But combining the juvenile justice uses and creating a plan that allowed for separate entrances, parking, and walkways was a challenge. We all worked closely with the Judiciary to make sure all their needs were met — resulting in a building (that) you might never realize is both an apartment complex and an at-risk youth shelter.”
The resulting 20-story high-rise, built using an all-reinforced-concrete system using tunnel-form construction, provides approximately 24,000 sq ft of built-out space on the first two floors of the building for Judiciary purposes with a designated, controlled access entrance on Alder Street. The Judiciary was also allotted 50 parking stalls on the ground floor of the attached parking structure, located makai, or toward the ocean.
Apartment residents, in contrast, have their own entrance into the building around the corner on Piikoi Street. There, they can access the complex’s amenities, including an indoor recreation room, on the ground floor as well as separate elevators to the studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom units on floors 2-20. While residents do share the parking garage with the Judiciary, residential spots are set aside on the upper floors.
Like the Judiciary entry point, the residential entrances and exits are designed for controlled access. Minakami said the building planners worked hard to keep the two different uses for the building separate — ensuring there is little crossover between the people who come and go in the two different sections. Even building services, including water and wastewater, are separately metered.
With its beige concrete facade and reflective floor-to-ceiling windows in the residential units, the building fits well with the growing number of high-rise buildings in the Ala Moana neighborhood.
Yet, beyond creating the right building design, Saiki said the Kobayashi Group took it upon itself to go beyond the RFP in terms of sustainability goals. The RFP called for a reduction in operational and embodied carbon, and the Kobayashi Group responded with a high-performance building design and efficient mechanical and electrical systems. The building plans also included solar photovoltaic panels with battery storage, which reduced the building’s utility costs by nearly 60%. In addition, the new site also offers residents shared electric vehicles and electric bicycle rental. Taken together, these additions help keep the apartments affordable for resident families.
The Kobayashi Group also took it upon itself to use CarbonCure concrete for construction, which injects recycled carbon dioxide into fresh concrete to sequester it from the environment. Hale Kalele is the first high-rise project on the island to use this material, though Minakami hopes it will not be the last.
“The sustainability aspects of this project are very noteworthy,” he said. “We hope this can become a model for other high-rise projects on the island to help us manage carbon emissions.”
More than one year after opening — early and under budget — Hale Kalele is a thriving community, with a waiting list for apartments. Only families earning no more than 60% of the area median income are eligible.
“The residents seem very happy, and the building management is really solid,” said Saiki. “We had a good concept that works. And it also helps that the project was so innovative.”
The complex is so popular that the HHFDC is pursuing two new mixed government housing projects: one combining housing with Department of Energy facilities and a second putting housing together with a school.
“With land being so constrained, we need to look at doing more mixed-use projects because they benefit our greater community,” said Minakami. “Having the precedent of Hale Kalele is so important — it’s a very well-designed building where the residents have basically no interface with the Judiciary or vice versa. It shows other agencies what is possible when you talk very early with all the agencies involved and understand everyone’s program requirements. When you can do that upfront work and incorporate everyone’s need into an overall master plan, you can meet all the different challenges involved and be successful.”
This article is published by Civil Engineering Online.