Rob Perez

Raising Cane

By Rob Perez

Sizing up Wal-Mart

The city says the retail superblock
will not affect the character
of nearby neighborhoods

Any way you look at it, this is a project that will have a major effect on the surrounding community.

Anyone who thinks otherwise isn't seeing clearly.

Spacewise, the double-decker Wal-Mart and Sam's Club to be built on a vacant parcel along Keeaumoku Street will be huge. You could easily fit Ward Warehouse, Ward Centre and Ward Village Shops into the 317,000 square feet of retail space planned for the Keeaumoku superblock, and still have room to spare.

Viewed another way, the project will be comparable to placing about eight Oahu supermarkets on one site, plus a four-level, 1,600-stall parking structure.

The Keeaumoku Street "superblock" project will feature 317,000 square feet of retail space for Wal-Mart and Sam's Club. The project is seen from the 18th floor of the Woodrose condominiums.

Trafficwise, experts estimate an average of 17,000 to 20,000 cars will come and go each weekday.

Large trucks, the kind known for spewing noxious emissions, also will deliver merchandise on a regular basis, unloading their hauls within a stone's throw of some residences. One environmental engineer said in court documents that the diesel emissions would increase the cancer risk for neighbors.

All this will happen in the heart of Honolulu, where traffic, noise and other urban woes already are major concerns, especially given the mix of shops, nightclubs, condos, apartments and houses along mostly narrow streets.

"The scale kind of boggles the mind," said Sen. Carol Fukunaga, whose district includes the superblock area.

Yet the city determined that this 10-acre project -- which will have a Wal-Mart on the first floor, Sam's Club on the second and the parking garage to the side -- won't alter the character of the surrounding neighborhoods.

Yes, you read right.

Despite residents' concerns about traffic, noise, pollution and health issues, the city in August granted a conditional-use permit for the project by concluding, among other things, that it would not change the character of the area.

More astonishingly, the city made its decision without holding a single public hearing. In other words, it determined the project wouldn't alter the character of the surrounding neighborhoods without asking people who live in those neighborhoods.

"We fear gridlock and noise and pollution 24 hours a day," said Jim Becker, whose 18th-floor Woodrose condominium overlooks the site.

Jim Becker, a member of Citizens Against Reckless Development, has a view of the Wal-Mart project site from his 18th-floor Woodrose condominium.

The city, in its defense, told me that Wal-Mart applied for a conditional-use permit to develop two adjacent lots as one, and reviews for that type of permit are extremely limited, don't involve approval of any structure plans, and don't cover issues such as traffic and noise. Those kind of issues, according to the city, may be considered as part of an ongoing review of Wal-Mart's applications for building permits, which have yet to be issued.

It also noted that the law does not require a public hearing prior to the issuing of building permits, but said any interested party can submit written comments to the city.

The city is reviewing Wal-Mart's building plans to ensure they comply with Honolulu land use regulations and various codes. "The city can require the applicant to make improvements to address concerns that the city may have," it said in a statement to the Star-Bulletin.

At the same time, the city said approval of building permits is ministerial, which basically means approval is forthcoming as long as the applicant meets the legal requirements.

"The city has no legal authority to impose discretionary conditions or deny ministerial permits, such as building permits, to those uses which the land-use ordinance specifies are permitted uses," city executive Loretta Chee wrote in a November 2002 letter to an area resident. Wal-Mart's project is a permitted use for the superblock area, according to Chee.


Still, the city is seeking some changes.

"To the extent allowable under the law, the department is working with the developer to modify the site plan to mitigate some of the concerns raised by the city," she wrote.

If the permitting process sounds rather befuddling, it is. Even experts in land use and planning told me they were puzzled by the city's handling of the Wal-Mart project.

One of the most befuddling aspects is that despite the size and scope of the project -- it will be Hawaii's first stacked big-box development, the first in a crowded urban area on Oahu and the largest of any big-box project here -- the city is not required to hold a single public hearing to solicit resident comments.

That's because the zoning doesn't need changing and all the required permits are ministerial, according to the city.

The lack of a public hearing and the speed in which Wal-Mart obtained its conditional-use permit -- a week after the application was accepted by the city -- has some residents wondering whether the project is being rushed through with little consideration for their concerns.

"You know there's some sort of sinister plot going on," said Doris Nakamura, who lives near where the diesel trucks will be making deliveries to the big-box stores.

The city, however, said the project is being treated like others and in accordance with the law. It also said Wal-Mart's application for a conditional-use permit was "reviewed and approved in the normal course."

Nakamura and Becker are members of Citizens Against Reckless Development, a group formed to fight the Wal-Mart project. The group, along with the United Food & Commercial Workers Union, Nakamura and Becker, have sued the city and Wal-Mart, alleging violations of the permitting process.

A hearing on a Wal-Mart motion to dismiss the lawsuit is scheduled for Thursday. The group also has filed a challenge with the city, contesting the zoning. That appeal is scheduled to be heard Feb. 27.

Although the union is largely financing the citizen group's challenges, at least one local supermarket chain has contributed money, underscoring the dislike that some small retailers have for the world's largest retailer. CARD members wouldn't disclose the name of the supermarket company.

Wal-Mart defended its efforts to involve residents in the project. It said it started meeting with residents and city officials about three years ago, when the company first considered purchasing the superblock site for a double-decker development. That purchase fell through, however, and it didn't publicly get back on track until last May.

Based partly on feedback from residents and the city, Wal-Mart is planning to widen Keeaumoku, Rycroft and Makaloa streets; screen service docks so they generally are not visible from nearby residences; install new traffic signals; place utility lines along Keeaumoku underground; and take other measures to be a good neighbor and help traffic flow, the company said.

"We're certainly doing everything we can to mitigate the impact on neighbors," said spokeswoman Cynthia Lin.

She said the majority of area residents support the project because of benefits it will bring, including 1,100 jobs, low-cost shopping and tax revenue generated from a site long vacant.

This will be the company's third stacked Wal-Mart/Sam's combination, but not the largest. It developed a 385,000-square-foot, double-decker facility in New York and a 285,000-square-foot complex in Baltimore.

Still, this is a case where size does matter.

If the city has followed its rules in processing the Keeaumoku project thus far, then the rules need changing. When a development of this magnitude is proposed for a densely populated area, there needs to be a way for residents to voice their concerns early in the process in a formal city hearing.

And the city should be required to consider at that point whether the development will substantially alter the character of the surrounding area.

Any way you look at it, that would be the sensible thing to do.

Star-Bulletin columnist Rob Perez writes on issues
and events affecting Hawaii. Fax 529-4750, or write to
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., No. 7-210,
Honolulu 96813. He can also be reached
by e-mail at:

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