Kailua seeks balance

Businesses and jobs vs. preserving a residential community

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Photo: Greg Yamamoto

It’s a hot Thursday and state Rep. Chris Lee is sitting in traffic trying to get out of Lanikai, his home neighborhood in Kailua. It’s 2:30 p.m., and Kailua and Lanikai beaches are still full of people, but cars trying to leave the area are already backed up  way past Buzz’s restaurant.

Lee is supposed to be at a meeting in Honolulu in half an hour, but he’s not going to make it on time.

“I don’t think we can limit the number of people coming into Kailua,” he says, “but I think you can manage how those people come into the community and where they’re going to be, to mitigate the impact on any one neighborhood.

“We’re a welcoming town, and our challenge is to make sure that the needs of our residents continue to be met and aren’t overlooked because of an increasing focus on tourism. Finding that balance is key.”

Balance is the word many people use these days in response to the tourism and development boom as visitors and Oahu residents flock to Kailua, a once sleepy suburb by the sea. The problem is: Different people have different visions of balance.

Stores, tour operators and rental businesses are flourishing and hiring more people, but many long-time residents see their laid-back lifestyle dying, with some saying tensions are close to a “boiling point.”

Photo: Greg Yamamoto

At peak time on a busy weekend, it can take an hour or more to drive the two miles out of Lanikai. Judy Bishop, who runs a recruiting and staffing agency, says she tries not to go to the beach or even leave her Lanikai house on weekends because of the crowds and traffic.

“The sheer volume of local people and tourists is overwhelming the infrastructure of Kailua,” Bishop says. “We love to have visitors, tourists, people from Aiea or Pearl City or Kahaluu, come to our beaches because these are very popular with residents. … But we can’t fit a busload of tourists in there. We’re being overwhelmed. The parking area, the little bridge, the narrow roads, it wasn’t designed for tour buses.”

There are other friction points:

  • The long-standing dispute over illegal bed-and-breakfast facilities and short-term home rentals that cater to tourists eager to see “the real Hawaii,” and upset neighbors and unsettle communities of long-time residents.
  • The construction of big-box stores, Whole Foods Market, which opened in April, and Target, scheduled to open next year.
  • D.R. Horton-Schuler’s development of 153 condominiums in six four-story complexes on Kailua Road, which eliminated rundown but affordable apartments for low-income people.
  • The emotional debate over state Senate Bill 2927, which would have eliminated planning, zoning, height and environmental oversight around rail and bus-transit stations around Oahu, including Kailua. The bill died in the Legislature, but it may be revived next session;
  • The proliferation of rented kayaks, paddleboards and other watercraft on the beaches, in the water and on the offshore islands that serve as bird sanctuaries.
  • For years, private landowners allowed hikers to cross their property to reach the trail to the World War II pillboxes above Lanikai, but the owners now chafe as the number of climbers has grown exponentially, seriously increasing erosion.

There are many themes to the competing interests: jobs, revenue and profit versus oceanside lifestyles and traditions; newcomers versus oldtimers; traditional stores versus unconventional entrepreneurs plying their wares from front yards or the beach; beautification and development versus preservation and Kailua for Kailuans.

“There’s no one who will tell you Kailua isn’t prettier, with the new storefronts, the shady median and the upgraded shops like Whole Foods,” says one resident. “But some wonder: ‘At what price?’ ”

Photo: Greg Yamamoto

Mitch D’Olier says one person is largely responsible for bringing all those extra tourists to Kailua. “I am absolutely convinced it’s the Obama effect,” says D’Olier, president and CEO of Kaneohe Ranch, which has recently redeveloped 15 of the 40 acres it owns in the heart of Kailua.

“The tour bus people say, ‘We’re no longer selling a Haleiwa tour, we’re selling a Kailua tour. It’s closer (to Waikiki), and the second thing is Obama-san,’” D’Olier says.

“This is where the president comes when he comes home. They want to eat shave ice where he eats shave ice, and they want to walk on the beach where they’ve seen him walking with his daughters. He’s an iconic figure who has been very good for Kailua at exactly the time we needed something. We were heading for recession and I was worried we were going to lose merchants.

“But,” he continues, “we need to manage the traffic better and we need to manage the recreational places better. And we need to enforce whatever rules are there. When people can’t get out of Lanikai, when traffic doesn’t work, no, that’s not what we see for Kailua.”

Bus companies wanted to drop off tourists at the district park, he says, but he told them that would be a “nightmare” and create a community backlash. Instead, Kaneohe Ranch provided space on Hekili Street for tour buses and opened up the 135 stalls on the second floor of the parking garage beside Longs Drugs, for extra cars drawn by the opening of Whole Foods.

Many smaller businesses that cater to both tourists and locals are thriving: Boots & Kimo’s Homestyle Kitchen has a constant lineup for breakfast and lunch; Pablo Gonzalez gets an overflow crowd daily at Lanikai Juice; and James Kodama’s Island Snow may be the biggest single beneficiary of the Obama effect. The president and the first family have bought Kodama’s shave ice during every Christmas vacation for the past four years, and that translates into national and international media coverage for Island Snow.

“The Obama thing for Kailua has definitely made a difference for all businesses in Kailua,” says Kodama, who owns the Island Snow shop, but has turned operations over to his son, Brockton.

When he was growing up in Kailua, Kodama says, “Stores really couldn’t survive here.” He welcomes the changes to what he remembers as a dull and sluggish town where he had trouble finding even part-time work as a teenager.

“It’s been a hidden jewel, but it’s no longer hidden,” he says. “When the Japanese people come in, they’re appreciating exactly what you and I appreciate.”

But Chuck Prentiss says the balance has been lost. Prentiss is president of the Kailua Neighborhood Board, which supports a more tranquil windward lifestyle and wants kayak rentals banned from Kailua beaches.

“Kailua and Kalama beach parks are public recreational properties, not commercial shopping centers,” he told the City Council in a hearing on Bill 11, CD1, which would prohibit commercial activities at those beach parks. “In fact, they are zoned P-2 Preservation. Furthermore they are located in an area that you have designated as a residential community on the Oahu General Plan and the Koolaupoko Sustainable Communities Plan. … The General Plan designates other parts of the island as resort destinations where regulated commercial beach activities are permitted. … Let’s not make a mockery out of our strategic planning process.”

Prentiss said passage of the bill would not force anyone out of business. “Anyone can have a kayak rental business that is conducted from a commercial property in Kailua, which rents to locals or visitors, who can take the kayak to the beach. But for them to use scarce beach space for constant delivery and pickup of hundreds of kayaks every day, conduct lessons for kite boards, paddle boards, surfboards, etc., is totally incompatible and inappropriate outside of designated resort-destination areas.”

A vote on the bill was delayed when the city’s attorney advised the City Council that it was overstepping its powers by regulating commercial activities at the parks. Meanwhile, city Parks and Recreation director Gary Cabato says he is drafting park rules that may include a limited number of permits for rentals.

That’s what Bob Twogood hopes for. Twogood, who has  spent three decades renting kayaks, says a complete ban would put at least three companies in Kailua out of business. He suggests a “reasonable permitting” system that allows the four store-based rental companies now operating to deliver kayaks next to Kaelepulu Stream, next to the bridge and across from Buzz’s.

“That keeps our delivery vehicles out of the beach parks,” he says, “and that gives the new kayakers a nice, safe place to learn to control the boat.” Then, he says, they can paddle to the mouth of the stream, drag the kayak across the sand and launch in the ocean.

Photo: Greg Yamamoto

Twogood says the city recently banned commercial activity in the beach parks from 1 p.m. Saturdays to 6 a.m. Mondays. So, the state will require businesses to buy permits for their kayaks, so that the companies pay $5 each time one of their kayaks lands on an offshore wildlife sanctuary like Mokulua, the twin islands off Lanikai that are nicknamed the Mokes. Lee says the money will be used to protect endangered species and the fragile ecosystems.

Mainlanders, Japanese and other foreigners are not the only visitors to Kailua. Many residents from other parts of Oahu are driving over the Pali or along H-3 to try the restaurants, browse in the shops or hold a family picnic at the beach. But, for many Kailua storeowners, it’s the tourists who keep the lights on.

At Elvin’s Bakery, Richard Wong has watched his sister’s business grow during its six years in operation. “Kailua is a nice town,” Wong says. He especially enjoys the growing number of Japanese tourists, who are particularly fond of the bakery’s blueberry scones.

“Kailua is really becoming a shopping destination,” agrees Kerrie Inouye, manager of the Fighting Eel boutique, which opened in December. “It’s amazing, the rate of growth and the number of people who are shopping. … I’m in absolute heaven here. We have a very loyal clientele, plus the Japanese magazines have a straight Kailua section. And the Japanese tourists want omiyage, so there is a lot of shopping.”

Fighting Eel, a locally owned women’s clothing company, moved into a building fronted by Whole Foods as part of Kaneohe Ranch’s pedestrian-friendly redevelopment of Kailua. The new shops are built with attractive storefronts next to the street, and parking is in the rear.

Photo: Greg Yamamoto

Kaneohe Ranch also plans to extend the pedestrian-friendly district by selling to the state a 6-acre-hillside parcel parallel to Hamakua Drive. The area, which would be called the Hamakua Nature Walk, would be zoned conservation in perpetuity, include pedestrian walkways on each side of Hamakua Marsh and feature a walkway to the hilltop.

“It provides another place for our community to be healthy,” D’Olier says.

When the Target store opens next year, he says, Kaneohe Ranch and Target will do more traffic studies. D’Olier envisions a traffic signal at the corner of Hekili and Hahani streets, at Target’s main entrance, coordinated with nearby stoplights to create a smooth traffic flow in and out. He’d also like a traffic solution next to Kalapawai Market that eases left turns for people leaving the beach park and Lanikai area, and thereby reduces backups.

“It’s in nobody’s interests for traffic to come to a grinding halt,” he says. “If it comes to a grinding halt, it’s bad for all our merchants.”

Some long-time residents say the boost to Kailua’s economy is worth the extra bodies, while acknowledging that locals have to make accommodations, such as getting to the beach early and knowing when to leave.

“It doesn’t really bother us,” says landscaper Brandon Roper.

“Living in Kailua, we know what a beautiful place we live in,” says his friend, fellow landscaper Chris Canario. “We cannot be selfish. We gotta share.”

Still, there are limits and they both say they don’t want their hometown to ever look like Waikiki. “One time I counted 150 kayaks on the Mokes,” Roper recalls with exasperation.

Hawaii Business magazine invites you to comment on our articles and the issues they raise. Comments are moderated for offensive language, commercial messages and off-topic posts and may be deleted. Some comments may be chosen for inclusion in the magazine on the Feedback page.

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Comments, page 1 of 2 1 2 Next »
Jul 9, 2012 01:19 pm
 Posted by  Nosurf

Please let the town grow. I am tired of paying $15.00 for a bottle of sunscreen in Kailua when I get 2x the amount for 1/3 of the price at Costco or Target. I am not stinking rich like people in Lanikai who only live here 1/4 of the year and own stores in Kailua as hobby. "There are a bunch of (Kailua) ladies who talk to me all the time about what they want." Why do you let these elite women decide on what goes in Kailua. No wonder we got Whole Foods instead a store that normal people can afford

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Jul 16, 2012 08:09 pm
 Posted by  EML

Kailua is a wonderful place to live. We are really fortunate. While I wish a traffic study would have been completed BEFORE Target was engaged, I do appreciate what Kaneohe Ranch has done so far. We participated in the community meetings and are pleased that we will have more opportunities for a walking environment. Balance is indeed difficult, and as we all know, you cannot please 100% of us 100% of the time. BTW, not all people who live in Lanikai are rich and Whole Foods rocks.

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Jul 20, 2012 04:34 pm
 Posted by  Keep It Kailua

Overall, we believe Hawaii Business Magazine has portrayed the imbalances of Kailua’s growth and development accurately, but there are issues that deserve greater detail and quotes in the article that should be questioned.

The core issues facing Kailua are the negative impacts of “tourism sprawl” on the Kailua and should the Kailua adhere to our sustainable-community plans and Oahu’s General Plan and remain a residential community.

Jul 20, 2012 04:37 pm
 Posted by  Keep It Kailua

The two “big elephants” in the room affecting these core issues are illegal lodging businesses in residential zoning and Kaneohe Ranch’s covert efforts to turn Kailua into a resort destination. The issue of allowing visitor lodging in Oahu’s residential neighborhoods has been settled.

Jul 20, 2012 04:38 pm
 Posted by  Keep It Kailua

In 1987, it was determined these businesses were non-conforming for residential zoning and again in 2010, the residential community decided they did not want to change the law by defeating City Council bills that would have allowed them in residential neighborhoods.

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Jul 20, 2012 04:40 pm
 Posted by  Keep It Kailua

Illegal vacation rentals and B&B hotels have numerous negative impacts to a residential community, but their most damaging impact is how they reduce the housing supply for local residents and alter the residential character of the community. Having permanent neighbors in our neighborhoods is the glue that welds and strengthens the stability of the community. Neighbors participate in local government, coach little league, volunteer at the library, and keep an eye on an elderly neighbor.

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Jul 20, 2012 04:41 pm
 Posted by  Keep It Kailua

In regards to Kaneohe Ranch, everyone in Kailua knows their improvements to the town center and their selection of tenants are not being made to serve the needs of the residents. After all, how many gawky tourist-oriented stores does a small residential community need? You don’t see these types of stores in Manoa, Kaimuki or Hawaii Kai. Certainly not the half-a-dozen plus stores we now have!

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Jul 20, 2012 04:43 pm
 Posted by  Keep It Kailua

Kailua was put on the tourism map by the illegal vacation rental operators who have thousands of website promoting Kailua as a resort destination and Kaneohe Ranch’s mass-marketing of the community via their tour-bus partners.

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Jul 20, 2012 04:44 pm
 Posted by  Keep It Kailua

Kailua is designated a residential community and the vast majority of Kailua residents want to keep it that way. The illegal vacation rental and B&B hotels in our residential neighborhoods must be shut down and the leadership at Kaneohe Ranch needs to acknowledge the desires of the community to remain a “residential community”. If these two problems are not resolved, Kailua will continue to be imbalanced and ultimately be transformed into a second Waikiki.

Jul 20, 2012 04:47 pm
 Posted by  Keep It Kailua

Kailua Neighborhood Board President Chuck Prentiss said it best when he stated “The (Oahu) General Plan designates other parts of the island as resort destinations…let’s not make a mockery out of our strategic planning process”.

Keep it Kailua

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