Richar Borreca

On Politics


Sunday, May 12, 2002

State officials scrabble
for office space

When former island developer Chris Hemmeter took the old Armed Forces YMCA in 1987 and turned it into a tarted-up version of an office building, Honolulu raved. The idea of buying a building for $11 million and spending $30 million putting in designer lamps, hanging suede wallpaper and ersatz European masters' oil paintings and installing a fancy electrical system sounded like a good idea in the booming Eighties.

Hemmeter then sold the building to the Japanese for $82 million. After the bubble burst, the building went on the market, but isle bureaucrats had already installed themselves and members of the Legislature into three of the five floors of the Spanish mission-style structure.

To those state workers, whose nights are lit by crystal chandeliers, the $22 million offered by the state to keep them from having to walk a few blocks from a normal office building to the state Capitol seemed like a deal too good to pass up. The state said buying the building it already was leasing would save money.

Meanwhile, the state Health Department building, a weed-choked, graffiti-stained wreck, awaited repair.

The plan all along was that when the State Office Tower was built (also by Hemmeter), it would serve as a move-in-move-out way station while other Capitol District buildings were repaired. First up in 1991 was the state Capitol itself, with its $69 million renovation.

Legislators, and the governor and lieutenant governor trudged over to the State Office Tower.

When the Legislature moved back to its own koa-and-concrete quarters in 1995, a new flock of bureaucrats roosted in the State Office Tower. The Health Department got out the mops and duct tape to keep its building together.

The next plan was to move the Health Department into the Kamamalu building on Richards Street. Because its tenant, the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, charges fees and generates its own money, it would be able to pay its own way to lease offices downtown.

But DCCA lost its funding, and the state already had its eyes on the old Post Office and Federal Building, another fine structure allowed to slip into musty, decrepit condition.

The latest plan is to strike a deal with the federal government, which will find a private developer to renovate the old Post Office building, which the state will pay for and then move the DCCA into. The state will start a lease-to-own program, at a cost of $33 million, to get into the building. This will free up the Kamamalu building, which must be renovated.

The completed Kamamalu building would then be free to welcome the Health Department staff, while something, as yet undetermined, is done to the DOH building. The cost for all this is largely undetermined.

So with this keen attention to detail and rigorous determination to set a careful plan and follow through, it's easy to see how state government can be run like a business.

Richard Borreca writes on politics every Sunday in the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached at 525-8630 or by e-mail at

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