In Waikiki, Fears That Construction Will Spoil Beach

By Fred A. Bernstein
New York Times
Kyo-ya, which owns large swaths of Waikiki, is proposing a $700 million redevelopment of its Princess Kaiulani and Moana Surfrider hotels. The plan would include replacing an eight-story wing of the Moana Surfrider with a 26-story hotel and condo tower — at 300 feet, more than twice as tall as the current zoning rules allow
In Waikiki, Fears That Construction Will Spoil Beach


In the public imagination, Waikiki Beach is a pristine strip of sand bracketed by coconut trees and outrigger canoes.

But after Hawaii became a state in 1959, high-rise hotels like the Rainbow Tower at the Hilton Hawaiian Village and the Sheraton Waikiki began to hide Honolulu’s most famous beach behind a wall of buildings. In 1976, the Honolulu City Council created the Waikiki Special District, imposing height, density and setback requirements for new construction.

The main requirement was a 1:1 ratio between height and setback, meaning a building could only be as tall as the open space in front of it was deep. For decades, the rules remained in place. The Halekulani, a hotel built in 1981, stands far back from the beach, behind landscaped grounds. But now Kyo-ya, which owns large swaths of Waikiki, is proposing a $700 million redevelopment of its Princess Kaiulani and Moana Surfrider hotels. The plan would include replacing an eight-story wing of the Moana Surfrider with a 26-story hotel and condo tower — at 300 feet, more than twice as tall as the 1976 rules allow.


In August, the City Council approved the $150 million tower plan, in broad outline, which now requires a variance from the Department of Planning and Permitting. David Tanoue, director of the department, has until the middle of this month to decide whether to grant the variance. If Kyo-ya gets the required approvals, construction of the tower could begin in 2012, said the company’s executive vice president, Greg Dickhens. But environmental groups might appeal a decision in Kyo-ya’s favor.

Kyo-ya’s position is clear. “If Waikiki wants to retain its position as a leading visitor destination in a world environment, we need to reinvest in our hotel inventory,” Mr. Dickhens said.

But critics point out that the building, mostly devoted to condominiums, will contain fewer hotel rooms than the one it is replacing. According to Mr. Dickhens, hotel rooms in Waikiki cost $600,000 or more each to build, meaning the company would have to command $600 a night to turn a profit, he said.

“In this market, it just isn’t economically viable,” he said, explaining Kyo-ya’s preference for condominiums it can sell. But including some hotel rooms, Mr. Dickhens said, was essential to winning the support of the community.

When the project was first announced, the local hotel workers union, Unite Here Local 5, opposed the plan, fearing a loss of jobs. But the union relented — on the eve of the City Council vote — when Kyo-ya promised to include at least 60 hotel rooms in the new tower.

Whatever the final mix of condos and hotel rooms, critics say the building will overpower a beach that is already losing one to two feet a year to erosion.

Donna Wong, director of the environmental group Hawaii’s Thousand Friends, said the new building would create “a solid wall effect” along the Waikiki shoreline, which she said “is exactly what legislation 34 years ago was meant to prevent.” She added, “We find it impossible to understand why our elected officials and government planners would not work to prevent encroachment into Waikiki Beach, instead of supporting this proposal.” In an e-mail message, Mr. Tanoue, the planning director, gave no hint of whether he would grant the variance. But, he wrote, “a basic planning principle is that a variance should be difficult to obtain.”

To obtain the variance, Kyo-ya has to prove hardship — that without the variance, it would be denied reasonable use of the property.

But in the case of the proposed Diamond Head tower, there is already a 141-room hotel on the property, which the company could renovate without seeking a variance, said John P. Whalen, a former director of the Honolulu Department of Land Utilization. For that reason, “it’s difficult to see how they could prove they’ve been denied use of their property,” said Mr. Whalen, who now runs a private planning firm called PlanPacific (and has no stake in the Kyo-ya application).

But Mr. Dickhens said, “We do have a hardship argument. If we stick to the zoning code, we would be limited to using about one-third of the site.” He said the hardship was exacerbated by the state’s failure to comply with a 1965 agreement to expand the beach. Since 2004, Kyo-ya has been controlled by Cerberus Capital Management, a private investment firm based in New York.

In the run-up for the City Council vote, Kyo-ya agreed to donate $50,000 to the Waikiki Health Center, for children’s programs, and another $50,000 to the city for trash receptacles.

The council, in deciding whether to grant a variance, is permitted to consider offsetting “public benefits.”

Mr. Whalen said that, in past cases, the public benefits have been physical improvements “related to the development.”

But Mr. Tanoue, the planning director, wrote in an e-mail that “the benefits do not need to be attached physically to the project.”

Mr. Dickhens of Kyo-ya said that the new tower, because it was thinner than the building it would replace, would open up view corridors toward the beach. He said that the hotel deserved special dispensation because its lot was the narrowest one on Waikiki beach. But critics of the plan warn of a domino effect if Kyo-ya is allowed to build its tower.

More towers like the one Kyo-ya is proposing would be a “disaster,” said David Lewin, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Resort and Spa. Mr. Lewin said that if hotel companies destroyed the ambiance of Waikiki, tourism could suffer. The rules were put in place after the last round of overdevelopment, he said, so that Waikiki “doesn’t make the same mistakes twice.”

Mr. Lewin has a more immediate reason to oppose the Kyo-ya proposal. The views from some 18 floors of the Hyatt, which occupies a 1976 tower behind the Diamond Head tower site, would be diminished by the new tower. “The rules were in place when they bought the property,” said Mr. Lewin said of his business rival, Kyo-ya. “Nothing has changed.”

Robert D. Harris, director of the Hawaii chapter of the Sierra Club, said his organization believed the construction on a rapidly eroding beach could mean “the potential loss of parts of Waikiki, which he described as one of Hawaii’s “crown jewels.”

Mr. Harris added that Hawaii should be planning for climate change. “It’s critical that the state start a managed retreat away from the shoreline before the problem of sea level rise becomes imminent and critical,” he said.

In the meantime, the state is planning a beach renourishment project, which would involve moving 24,000 cubic yards of sand to Waikiki Beach from offshore through a submerged pipe. Sam Lemmo, the state’s administrator of the Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands, said the project, which is expected to begin in February, would add about 40 feet to the beach.

Most of the $2.5 million cost will be borne by taxpayers, said Mr. Lemmo.

But Kyo-ya, which will gain direct benefits from the replenishment, has agreed to pay $500,000 of the cost

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