Laie on the verge


POSTED: Sunday, August 30, 2009

Brigham Young University of Hawaii has been a part of the Koolau Loa community for more than 50 years. As we contemplate the future, university and community leaders grapple with sustainability issues facing our island, our students and our neighbors. For a university our size, it's a particularly delicate balance. The economic vitality of the region in particular is tied to our campus.

With a student body of just 2,400, we struggle to maintain fiscal balance given the mounting inflation of education sector costs. We draw students from Hawaii, the South Pacific and the Far East, and our applications from these areas continue to grow each year.

Many campuses are raising tuition to keep up. Others are merging with larger institutions. Some, unfortunately, are folding. With an eye on sustainability, BYU-Hawaii is hoping to grow its student population. We're not the only university locally or nationally taking this tack.

Our physical plant is quite old. But improvements are not affordable at our current size. Increasing our student population will allow us to spread the costs of a BYU-Hawaii education over a larger pool, replace and renovate aging campus buildings and continue to support the surrounding residents.


If we do nothing, the entire region will suffer. Without BYU-Hawaii, the region would be economically devastated. We would, no doubt, lose even more longtime residents and increase traffic as more people would be forced to commute to Honolulu for work. Already, there are fewer jobs per household than most any other place on Oahu.

The city's General Plan for Oahu calls for economic development and support for educational institutions. There are two major challenges limiting BYU-Hawaii's growth. There are already 550 housing units in the plan for Laie. They haven't been built because, among other reasons, they would hem in the BYU-Hawaii campus, restricting our growth. This is inconsistent with the plan's call to support educational institutions and economic sustainability.

Affordable housing is desperately needed in Koolau Loa where overcrowding is quite severe. In recent community planning meetings, it has been clear that more housing is needed. This would primarily assist in taking care of the pent up demand of current residents (versus drawing new residents to the area.) We need at least 650 more homes than the 550 that already exist in the plan, and we're asking that they be built in Malaekahana rather than on land BYU-Hawaii needs to grow.

These additional 650 homes are consistent with the General Plan for Oahu because the plan deals with population, not housing units. With the lack of housing in the area, there are more people per household in Laie than anywhere else on Oahu. More and more homes in the area are becoming vacation rentals and second homes instead of primary residences. The new homes are needed just to alleviate the current overcrowding, to replace homes that are being converted to something other than primary residences, and to serve the population growth that is already projected for Koolau Loa. As a result, the new homes should not increase the area's population beyond what the General Plan and the city forecast for Koolau Loa.

If current trends continue, 30 percent of the homes in Koolau Loa will be second homes in 15 years with more and more longtime residents leaving the region because they are unable to make a living and find affordable housing. While the rest of Honolulu is growing, Laie has been in a population decline — losing over 16 percent of its population and splitting families apart.

Laie is a university town. Support for BYU-Hawaii's growth and affordable housing in Malaekahana is critical for the health and sustainability of this special place. The city's Koolau Loa's Sustainable Communities plan should heed the General Plan and meet the needs of the community by planning for a future that incorporates these changes.

Over the past several months, the Koolau Loa community has participated in a process called Envision Laie. Through this process we have learned that the majority of residents support change to sustain the community for the future through job creation, moderate economic development and affordable housing. These results mirror a scientific survey conducted with residents from the area.

A healthy university, thriving and sustainable, is our goal. We ask the community to support this goal, and support a balance of economic, social, community and environmental priorities for sustaining the Laie community for future generations.


Dr. Steven C. Wheelwright, Brigham Young University Hawaii president, is a former senior associate dean of the Harvard Business School's MBA program, a Baker Foundation professor and senior associate dean and director of Harvard Business School's publication activities. He is a world-recognized expert in solving complex managerial problems and foreseeing future business trends.