Building higher in urban Honolulu is a better plan
A City Council resolution encourages taller structures in downtown areas.
THE post-World War II model for residential development radiated low-density suburban homes across much of Oahu. The result has been traffic congestion that continues to escalate as more and more people drive to work from districts that are almost exclusively residential, while the demand for roads, sewer and utility lines, schools and other services -- and the constant, costly burden of maintaining them -- increase the need to raise and spend more tax revenue.
At the same time, an appetite for further housing competes with the need for agricultural land and scenic spaces on which tourism relies.
So instead of building out, the City Council suggests that construction go vertical, approving a resolution that the administration encourage developers to build as high as limits allow -- or even higher when circumstances are suitable.
Though the resolution doesn't have the force of law, the Council's move recognizes that the city's building prescriptions should be re-examined and changed to better fit Honolulu's urban complexion and a growing population. With a mass transit system now in play, the time has come for revisions in building densities and a shift toward mixing uses and providing broader income-level choices for housing.
The resolution's goal is to push buildings higher to boost available housing units in hopes of curbing the need for "paving over more of our open space," said its sponsor, Councilman Charles Djou.
While height limits were established decades ago to preserve mountain and ocean view planes, the intention has been eclipsed in bits and pieces over the years. The current limit of 350 feet already has been set aside for commercial and residential structures in the downtown area and in Kakaako. Along Oahu's southern coast, hotels, condos and resorts obstruct shorelines despite the limits.
Djou correctly argues that increasing the number of people who live in the primary urban center -- from Waialae-Kahala to Pearl City -- will help lessen traffic congestion and open up housing options. However, height limits should not be the only consideration.
Regulations could be adapted to blend retail and commercial activity with residential units, much like the format D.R. Horton's Schuler Division is proposing for its Hoopili project in Ewa, where height limits also could be increased to further promote West Oahu's "second city" effort.
The combination makes for more livable neighborhoods that remove the need for people to drive from home to office and shops. There are other alterations the city could make. Instead of separate, postage-stamp-sized "open spaces" now required for high-rise buildings, developers could collectively fund neighborhood parks, putting the space to better use than for a few trees and landscaped buffers. Instead of parking garages at street level, stores or businesses could present a more approachable, people-friendly atmosphere despite a building's elevation.
Honolulu's growth into a mature city calls for regulation changes that will allow it and its residents to thrive while sustaining the island's rural areas. The city's leaders need to take on this challenge with more than a resolution.