Count the cranes popping up along or near Ala Moana Boulevard and check out Howard Hughes’ interactive model of the reimagined Kakaako circa 2025, and it’s understandable when longtime locals fear the loss of the Honolulu they’ve always known.
Talk to the people now living in the three most recently opened buildings in Kakaako, however, and they tell a different story. They talk about community and value, about actually living the “live/ work/play” tag line, and about walking more and driving less. The new Kakaako – which has been largely speculative until now – is emerging, and the people living there like what they see.
Two new buildings opened their doors to residents in December and January. Waihonua, the Alexander & Baldwin project that filled the last slot in the area’s “super block,” opened 345 new residences near the corner of Waimanu and Piikoi, while One at Ala Moana added another 206 homes on top of the Nordstrom store at the mall. Prior to those two openings, Pacifica Honolulu, on Kapiolani Boulevard between Ward and Kamakee, was the newest residential condo tower in the area, opening in 2011 after San Diego developer Oliver-McMillan bought the partially built project off the auction block and completed it.
Every Kakaako developer claims its buyers are locals – families, working professionals, retirees – but talk about this development boom with friends at work or at church, and many don’t buy it. With three new buildings now open and residents firing up the grills on their recreation decks, Hawaii Business set out to see who really lives there.
Kevin Aoki is a hard man to track down. With restaurants in Miami, Atlanta and Honolulu, his staff thinks he spends more time on airplanes than in any one spot. While even he admits there’s not much time left for “playing” – between his restaurants and his wife and two children – Aoki embodies Kakaako’s live/work promise.
“I do everything in Kakaako,” he says, sitting in front of his two Kakaako restaurants, Doraku and Blue Tree Cafe, two anchor tenants in Pacifica Honolulu. “I live and work in the same building. My office is in Kakaako, and I’m developing a new spot on the corner,” he says, pointing to the overflow parking area he maintains on the corner of Kamakee and Kapiolani.
Born and raised in New York City, urban living comes easy for Aoki, but it took the vision of the Oliver-McMillan developers to lure him to Kakaako. “They kept eating in my Waikiki restaurant,” he said, “and they kept talking.” Oliver-McMillan’s vision included street-level restaurants a short walk from Blaisdell Center. “When I first came and looked, this stretch was really dark and uninviting,” Aoki says, “but I saw opportunity. It’s close to Ala Moana, close to downtown. Where else can Oahu grow?”
Aoki bought a three bedroom condo in the building, then moved in and opened the two restaurants as soon as the construction was completed. From his 33rd-floor windows, he has expansive views from Magic Island to the airport. Asked if he worries about losing those views when the new buildings go up in front of him, he shakes his head. “Nah. Views are views, but owning here is gaining equity in the area.”
Aoki confesses he doesn’t have much time to enjoy the building’s amenities, but reports that his children love them, particularly the pool and the two on-site movie theaters. “And I’m on the building’s board,” he says, “so I get to hear all about what’s going on.”
Economist Paul Brewbaker talks about “agglomeration economies,” the forces that collide in urban settings that often produce unexpected benefits and synergy. For Aoki, it’s not a concept, but a reality. The successful partnering of his restaurant with this Oliver-McMillan project now has the two entities partnering again, this time on an Atlanta project. “And we’re seeing the same thing there,” he says. “It feels like a demographic shift, where people are leaving the suburbs and returning to the city.”
As for Aoki, Kakaako is home. He’s purchasing a unit in the new Oliver-McMillan building, Symphony, and is holding his Pacifica home for his mom. “She’s like my business partner,” he says, “and when she’s ready, we want her close by.”
THE EXTENDED FAMILY
Charlie and Claire Shimamoto never imagined they’d leave their home in Aina Haina, the home where they had raised their daughters, displayed treasures collected over decades, and customized to fit their hobbies and needs – a craft room for Claire and an indoor driving range to keep their golf games sharp. Nor did they think that, once their two daughters were grown, starting families and careers of their own, they’d all live under the same roof again.
Then Waihonua came along. In January, the entire Shimamoto clan moved into this new Kakaako building – Claire and Charlie in their two-bedroom unit, daughter Monique and her boyfriend in their home just one floor up, and their other daughter, Nicole, and her husband two floors above that.
What is it like having the whole family in the same building? “Ah, they’re busy!” Charlie says of his daughters and their partners. “They lead their own lives, and we do, too. But it’s so convenient. When somebody needs something, we’re right here.” They also have a lock on what’s going on in the building. Nicole, an attorney with Central Pacific Bank, took a seat on the board and oversees the finance committee. Monique, a teacher, sits on the social committee. Asked if he’s looking to turn the tables and complain to his daughters when things aren’t going right, Charlie laughs and says, “You think they’d listen?”
“WE WALK TO WORK, AND WE STROLL HOME AFTER WORK, STOPPING FOR DINNER OR A COFFEE. YOU JUST DON’T GET THAT KIND OF EXPERIENCE WHEN YOU’RE IN YOUR CAR EVERY DAY.”
—Tanna Dang, Kakaako storeowner and condo owner
“We had three years to prepare,” he says of the journey from buying before the building was completed to actually moving in. “Every week, we’d eat at the noodle house across the street and watch the progress.” Charlie and Claire knew they weren’t just moving – they were embracing a complete lifestyle change. Charlie bought bus passes and he and Claire parked their car at Ala Moana and explored the island by bus. “We even struck out to the North Shore for shrimp one day,” he says. “Yeah, it took all day, but, hey, we’re retired.”
Charlie retired a few years ago, finally passing on the family business, Chinatown’s Chicken Cradle Market, to one of the employees. His parents had started the business and passed it on to him. “I didn’t want my daughters selling chickens,” he says, so he made sure they got their educations, made good grades and launched careers. Family ties run deep in Hawaii, with Charlie’s grandparents even living in Kakaako for a time. “I’ve watched it decline over the years. Those who question the development here, they don’t have roots here. I do, and I like the progress,” he says.
“The old, untouched ways may be what brings people to Hawaii,” Claire adds, “but those of us from here, we want to see progress.”
Charlie admits he’s closely watching Howard Hughes Corp., but that, so far, he’s impressed with what the developer is doing. “The Ward area, it’s going to be fabulous,” he says, “And not just for those of us who live here, but for everybody on Oahu.”
Claire is quick to point out the families and young professionals she sees drawn to the area. “My daughter teaches public school. Her boyfriend is a respiratory therapist. And they live here,” she says.
As for the talk of megabuck penthouses, Charlie is pragmatic. “There can only be so many penthouses,” he says, “and the people who buy them, I figure they worked hard, too.”
DUAL INCOME, NO KIDS
Lucia Amasio and her husband jumped on a one bedroom rental at One Ala Moana as soon as it came on the market. In their mid-40s, with no children and demanding jobs in the hospitality industry, finding the right place to live was critical. “When we came back to Oahu from Maui,” she says, “we had to decide: Kahala, Hawaii Kai or Kakaako?” Kakaako’s location and buzz sealed the deal. “We’re really loving SALT,” she says, referring to the Kamehameha Schools development around Coral and Keawe streets, highlighting local shops, restaurants and street art.
At One, she’s found a nice life. “We love the amenities – the pool, the cabanas, the golf simulator and the movie room,” she says. And, as a merchandising professional at Aulani, Amasio knows amenities – when they work and when they don’t. She also likes the size of One. “With only 200 units, it feels more intimate.”
Asked about the megamoney buyers and the rumors of Mark Zuckerberg owning there, she was emphatic. “It’s just not what I’m witnessing. I see young professionals living and working in the area, kids getting on the elevators and heading to school.” As for Zuckerberg, she laughs, admitting she doesn’t really know what he looks like, but as far as she can tell, the VIPs and everyday folks seem to mix without distinction.
Amasio and her husband still own their Maui home and are trying to figure out which of the new buildings in Kakaako is their next buy. “I just feel like Kakaako is blossoming,” she says. “There are buildings and units at all price points. Waikiki is touristy, but Kakaako feels like it’s for the locals.”
THE ENTREPRENEURIAL COUPLE
Tanna Dang says that, since moving into Waihonua in January, she hasn’t filled her gas tank once. “We walk to work, and we stroll home after work, stopping for dinner or a coffee,” she says. “You just don’t get that kind of experience when you’re in your car every day.”
Dang and her husband, Bryson, are part of another multigenerational family calling Waihonua home. They first visited the Waihonua sales gallery just to look. A few hours later, they plunked down their deposit and called her mom to check it out. Mom did.
Dang saw her parents aging and wanted to be sure they were in a good spot to enjoy a great quality of life when they retired, rather than worrying about the maintenance and upkeep of their large Nuuanu home. “It’s been a paradigm shift for them,” she says, “realizing that they can downsize and really enjoy life now.”
For her parents, that process is ongoing. The Nuuanu home goes on the market this summer and they are currently living between both homes, packing and downsizing during the week, then camping at Waihonua on the weekends. “They call it Camp Waiho,” Dang says. “Mom’s living it up, serving on the communications committee and making sure to go to all the events in the neighborhood.”
As the owners of Eden in Love, a lifestyle boutique in Ward Warehouse, Dang and her husband might worry that Howard Hughes’ changes in Ward Village could hurt them. But she doesn’t see it that way. “They’ve been communicative and honest with us, and I’m confident there’ll be a spot for us in the new Ward Village,” she says.
For now, her Mini Cooper sits lonely in the Waihonua garage while she and her husband hit the sidewalks every morning, stop for pastries at Panya Bistro on the way to the store, then close up shop around nine each night and stroll home under the stars.
THE FORMER COMMUTERS
Coldwell Banker agent Raymond Kang and his partner couldn’t take the traffic anymore, commuting to their jobs in Kahala and the Ala Moana area, so they sold their Moanalua Village home and decided to “test drive” city living. It didn’t take long in a rented unit in the Admiral Thomas building before they signed on as original buyers in Pacifica. “We are city people. Our lives are in town,” Kang says.
“We enjoy the lifestyle,” he says. “There’s no rushing home after work. There’s no traffic. With Chai’s downstairs, we can either cook and eat in, or wander downstairs for dinner.”
Kang admits, however, that their big visions of walking everywhere haven’t materialized as much as they thought. “We’re addicted to the air conditioning, I think,” he says.
“WE ENJOY THE LIFESTYLE. THERE’S NO RUSHING HOME AFTER WORK. THERE’S NO TRAFFIC.”
—Raymond Kang, New Kakaako resident
As for community, Kang and his partner are also bullish on the Ward Village concept, after having initially been dubious of Howard Hughes. “They seem to have listened to people,” he says, mentioning the 3-acre park slated to go where the warehouses by the theaters are now and the array of monthly events happening at the IBM Building.
Being a Realtor, Kang says, he focuses on value and the diversity of products for a diversity of buyers. He’s found that both local and offshore buyers are attracted to the area and that, by design, it embraces both.
Kang and his partner recently listed their Pacifica home, trying to miss the rush of sales when the new Howard Hughes buildings are completed next year. They’ve purchased a new unit in Anaha and are also considering other Kakaako buildings still in development.
“When you’re converting to condo life,” Kang says, “you’ve got to plan ahead, not wait to the last minute.” They’re staying close, of that they are certain. “We’ll still be coming to happy hour at Chai’s,” he says.
THE EARLY RETIREE
Colleen Kitamoto calls her one bedroom home in Waihonua her dream come true: a peaceful place to enjoy retirement. Kitamoto knew, even as a little girl on the Leeward Coast, that she’d one day live in a new condo. “I know I was the only kid in my class who announced she’d one day buy a condo,” she says. Her new home is proof that the perseverance, attention to financial planning and work ethic instilled by her parents paid off.
Kitamoto spent a career in the insurance business saving enough to buy a small place in upper Makiki and watching its value grow over 25 years. She worked closely with her financial planner, explaining that she wanted to retire early and buy a new condo. He told her she could do one or the other, but probably not both. She proved him wrong and then some.
“A&B made this attainable for so many of us,” she says, pointing to the pricing when the units first went on the market. “It was a boutique, contemporary project, perfect for local buyers.”
As for the other projects in the area, Kitamoto feels locals are very much a factor in the developments and sales. “People say there’s no chance for locals to live in these buildings, but I don’t think that. We need all kinds of people to create a community.”
For her now, it’s all about quality of life. Attention has been given to the tiniest details of her new home, making sure it reflects her dream. Kitamoto brought with her only the few things she treasures, starting from scratch and working with her interior designer and friend Jean Udell. The two picked each piece, from the modern painting of Steve Jobs to the James Moder chandelier that hangs in her bedroom. “Jobs is an inspiration to me,” she says, “and I wanted that sense of inspiration in my home.”
Even in realizing the dream, however, Kitamoto stuck to her budget. “I still like to shop, and Nordstrom is going to be right there very soon,” she says, pointing to the Ewa expansion at the Ala Moana Center.
Kitamoto serves on the Waihonua board, pouring over the insurance policies to make sure her investments are protected and helping with the communications committee. “There’s such a community forming already within the building, everybody sharing information and helping each other,” she says.
Kitamoto shares her dream home with her lovebird, Buffy, whose cage sits in the corner of the bedroom. She and Udell thought of everything, even finding a miniature chandelier for Buffy’s cage, similar to the one over the bed. “Now we each have our own chandeliers,” she says. And their own perch in the sky over Kakaako.
The reimagined Kakaako was first envisioned almost 40 years ago when the state Legislature established the Hawaii Community Development Authority, charging it to focus on renewal and urban planning in underutilized areas. Kakaako was first on the list. The area’s development history has since tracked the economic booms and busts of those four decades.
The residential “Super Block” emerged in the area bordered by Ala Moana, Piikoi, Queen and Waimanu streets. This cluster of high-rise residential towers promised urban living with amenities, less commuting and proximity to upscale Honolulu shopping and dining. Nauru Tower was the first building on the block in 1990, a luxury property with ocean views. Hawaiki followed almost a decade later, after the local economic doldrums dissipated, then Hokua and Koolani took their slots in 2005 and 2006, leaving only one small parcel undeveloped.
Kakaako seemed poised to rise up as the urban core once imagined, with Moana Pacific opening in 2007, a dual-tower project with almost 700 units taking the whole mauka side of Kapiolani between Pensacola and Piikoi, and 909 Kapiolani, a project with only 225 units on the corner of Ward and Kapiolani. The ill-fated Moana Vista was slated to open by late 2008 or early 2009, but cue the Great Recession and that building stalled, partially completed, a metaphor of the start stop pace that has plagued this new Kakaako. Sensing the engines revving again, San Diego-based developer Oliver-McMillan snatched the partially completed project off the auction block and brought it back to life as Pacifica Honolulu, which opened in 2011.
More than 20 years after the Super Block opened its first residential tower, Alexander & Baldwin broke ground on the block’s final building, Waihonua. The small footprint of the project, squeezed between two large buildings and so close to Ala Moana, raised doubts that it could be on par with its neighbors. When the building opened three years later, the buyers got the last laugh with eye-popping appraisals on their units, coming in significantly higher than what they paid.
With the economy robust again and housing in short supply, blue-chip developers like MacNaughton Group, Kobayashi Group and Stanford Carr joined Oliver-McMillan and A&B, announcing new projects and breaking ground on an array of offerings across the urban core, from the posh luxury of One Ala Moana on top of the existing Nordstrom store to the more affordable 801 South St. towers on the site of the old Honolulu Advertiser building.
Then the big game changers: Howard Hughes Corp. acquired the 60-acre Victoria Ward properties in late 2010 and Kamehameha Schools began working soon thereafter on its SALT mixed-use project on 29 acres of prime Kakaako property. Suddenly HCDA was busy again, with two 800-pound gorillas proposing vast changes to the area and other smaller projects getting in on the action.
The high-tech interactive model at the IBM Building highlights most of Kakaako and offers a glimpse of the area’s future, with as many as 20 new residential buildings, a 3-acre park in the middle, a show stopping Whole Foods Market with residences on top, and a bevy of restaurants, shops and galleries weaving it all together. Whether it happens in the time frame projected – completion within the decade – is likely to be as dependent on the economic winds as the progress made to date has been. Either way, Honolulu’s live/work/play urban core has already been firmly planted in the former salt ponds of Kakaako.