Waikiki Pioneers

James Steiner’s descendants make the cut with two choice acres

November, 2002

Picture this: A house on Waikiki beach in 1912, where the police substation and Duke Kahanamoku statue now stand. No hotels, just a few neighbors and the Pacific Ocean at your doorstep. That’s what the family of Czechoslovakian immigrant James Steiner once had.

The family no longer owns property. Their land located makai of Kalakaua Avenue has been condemned by the government. However, family members and general partner Steiner Family Ltd. own the land under the Hyatt Regency Waikiki; they also own the Education America building on Bishop Street and the land on which it is built. These two strategic Honolulu acres had a total assessed value of $215 million in 2001.

According to a book (Hawaii’s Early Territorial Days) by Steiner’s grandson and Honolulu attorney Keith J. Steiner Sr., James Steiner arrived in Hawaii in 1882 and landed a job with Hart & Co., Honolulu’s largest confectionary and catering business. He became a partner and eventually bought out the Hart family. By 1899, James had acquired downtown property and built the three-story Elite Building on Bishop Street, where the Education America building is today.

Steiner also became a Waikiki pioneer. He was one of the first to move there and build a house in 1912. “In those days, that was considered pretty adventurous. It used to be about a 45-minute commute by horse and buggy from Waikiki into downtown Honolulu. So we would do that every day, and people used to think it was crazy to live so far out of town,” says K. James “Jim” Steiner Jr., the great-grandson of James Steiner and vice president of Elite Management Corp., a real estate management company for the family’s properties.

James Steiner the immigrant began acquiring property across the street from his home on Kalakaua Avenue in the early 1900s. A businessman named Percy Pond had subdivided the property into lots of about 5,000 square feet each. Steiner bought them one by one and rented each for a little below market price, on the condition the tenants took care of repairs. Keith Steiner says some notable early renters included Webley Edwards of “Hawaii Calls” fame and the Spencecliff Restaurants’ Weaver brothers, who operated a hot dog cart there, before they went on to bigger and better things.

The Biltmore Hotel was eventually constructed there; it was demolished in 1975. Chris Hemmeter developed the Hyatt Regency Waikiki there shortly afterward. Since the mid-1980s, the land has been leased to Azabu USA Corp. The lease expires in about 25 to 30 years, says Jim Steiner.

James Steiner’s properties were held in a trust that was managed by Hawaiian Trust Co., which became Pacific Century Trust and terminated in 1997 with the passing of his son, Ernest. Jim Steiner was a partner at Cades Schutte Fleming and Wright at the time. He says, “It was getting to the point where it was obvious that the family had to really employ someone to deal with the property. I kind of stepped up and said, ‘Hey, looks exciting to me. I’ll give it a try.’” He started working for the family business in the fall of 2000.

Jim Steiner says Sept. 11 was a disaster for Waikiki and had a significant impact on that property’s income, although he declines to disclose those numbers. According to him, family members have differing views about the long-term goals for their assets. Says Steiner: “It’s safe to say that the family will continue to view its holdings of the properties that it already has as long-term. What’s not clear is the extent to which the entity that owns the Waikiki property and the downtown property will expand and own additional properties.”

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Kelli Abe Trifonovitch