An urban future lies ahead for Kapolei.
Let’s go back to the beginning.
Just four decades ago, the City Planners of Kapolei looked over the cane fields that covered the land we all live on today and had a vision, a dream of a city.
In the reactive environment of our islands, our city became a proactive answer to the need for a new urban core. While most cities in our state were formed in response to a growing population base that worked nearby—think Honolulu and shipping, Lahaina and whaling—Kapolei came out of a vision from the collective trust of the James Campbell Estate.
“The City of Kapolei is envisioned as a kama‘aina garden city,” says Francis Oda, Urban Design master planner of Kapolei and chairman of Group 70. “It’ll have small blocks, and the buildings will relate to each other. The buildings will all reflect the kama‘aina architectural theme of the city, seen in the buildings that have already been built. In this way, the City of Kapolei will reflect Hawai‘i in a way that no other urban development does today.”
The land the city sits on is a part of the 41,000-acre Honouliuli ahupua‘a that James Campbell bought in 1877 for $95,000—or just over $2 million in today’s dollars. By drilling the first artesian wells in the state, he turned this arid, barren plain that was so dry one could barely raise cattle on it, into farmable land that would spend the next century planted with sugar cane.
But as the sugar market became increasingly competitive worldwide, and the beneficiaries of James Campbell grew in number, more advantageous uses for the land were sought. The dreams of a city began in the 1950s.
It came in fits and started with, first, the opening of the industrial park and a couple of little housing developments in lower Makakilo and Honokai Hale. But it was on the centennial of Campbell’s original purchase that the idea of a new city was given the endorsement of the Honolulu City Council who designated the future City of Kapolei as the location of a Secondary Urban Center in the Oahu General Plan in 1977.
The city was to be the first of its kind in the islands: master-planned from the ground up and all governed by an Urban Design Plan, which contains very specific goals and concepts for what Kapolei was to be. After 13 years of planning, Campbell Estate broke ground for the city in 1990.
The concepts are admirable, and were ahead of their time a quarter century ago, with mandates to create green, environmentally friendly buildings, bike and pedestrian paths to promote outdoor activity and a harmony with the natural environment, melding the urban density of Honolulu with the relaxed lifestyle of the neighbor islands.
Special attention was put into the sight lines, making sure views of the Wai‘anae Mountain Range and the Pu‘u Kapolei and Palailai would remain a part of the city’s character. There even is a Street Tree Master Plan dictating where there will be monkey pod, silver trumpet and Tenny shower trees in order to provide continuity to the look of the city.
The final piece of the first stage of this vision was completed this October as the surface streets of the city core were opened and the urban fringe of the Kapolei Villages have their direct connection with the West Kapolei commercial area via the Kapolei Parkway.
The UDP mandated keeping the city blocks small, very similar in size to what one finds in San Francisco, in order to encourage walking, provide flexibility of routes and allow for spontaneous meetings on the sidewalks, the kind you cannot have in cars.
When completed, there will be three interconnected dedicated pedestrian areas, the biggest being Palailai Mall, which you can see the beginnings of between the Campbell and Bankoh buildings.
The mall will function the same way that Fort Street does for Honolulu, but with stronger emphasis on a Garden City theme featuring lush landscaping lined with shower trees, and will also have an educational component for visitors detailing James Campbell’s impact on the community.
This walking mall will continue through the city over the next few years, connecting the Mehana subdivision with the urban core, expanding the plans for Kapolei to a city of walkers and bikers. Currently, the mall’s path can be seen as the grass strip between the library and Island Pacific Academy.
But much is yet to be done. The footprints of roads for the urban core are in, but the towers of urban development are still nowhere to be seen.
Steve Kelly, vice president of development for the Campbell Company, preaches patience, because in the life cycle of a city, we are still in the toddler stage. Single-story, stand-alone restaurants and businesses are not the best use of urban land, but the seeds of business need to be sown to reap future development.
“That is how cities get built. Then they get redeveloped and get higher, denser and better, but this is not going to happen overnight,” says Kelly, whose company has funded more than $240 million into the city’s infrastructure.
“This is the biggest public perception challenge we have, ‘Where is the Second City?’ We only broke ground in 1990. Look at Kaka‘ako: It has been part of urban development for 120 years, and now you are finally seeing the high density there. Towers aren’t sprouting here yet, but it is very early in the general scheme of things.”
Oda agrees with Kelly’s sentiment and believes very strongly in the design plan.
“Cities take a long time to develop,” says Oda, who still serves on the Kapolei Design Advisory Board, which approves all new projects. “The City of Kapolei is well on its way to jelling, but it still doesn’t have its downtown. I think that in a few years, with a good economy, that we might see the downtown develop. This downtown will be a good walking area, with shops, restaurants and other urban amenities.”
Photos: Courtesy James Campbell Estate