Repeating Development History

I began driving down Fort Weaver Road to my in-laws’ house in 1969. Green fields of sugarcane lined the two-lane road on both sides. I found quaint the traffic delays en route to Ewa Beach by the burning of cane for harvest, and equally attractive its sweet smell.

And always, the aesthetics of cane – green and growing for as far at the eye could see – broke the gray-cement palette of an expanding Honolulu.

Today Fort Weaver Road offers two heavily traveled lanes in both directions. Sugarcane cultivation ground to a halt three decades ago, replaced with the cultivation of malls, townhouses and single-family homes. With the exception of a few golf courses and one small parcel currently under development on the mauka edge of Ewa Beach, it is a once-green landscape turned dull.

Add the second city development in Kapolei, expansion of Mililani Mauka and planned new developments that will stretch Mililani even further mauka, and Waipahu all the way to Kapolei.

Some tried to control it. Gov. George Ariyoshi’s administration produced development plans that would have preserved green space and produced measured growth. Mayor Jeremy Harris built a huge city park in central Oahu that preserved island vistas for all who played there.

Environmental groups such as Hawaii’s Thousand Friends cried “Developers’ ripoff!” at the announcement of every new planned community and the expansion of every old one. But nothing could stop it, and the cry of anti-development sentiment on the Leeward side turned to a whimper.

Why? Need trumped aesthetics and nostalgia. When sugar died, the third leg on Hawaii’s three-legged economy – agriculture, military and tourism – fell off. Construction took up the slack and was largely responsible for reviving Hawaii during the lost economic decade of the 1990s. For every environmentalist who decried development, an electrician, carpenter, plumber and others in the building trades yelled for more. So did those who wanted roofs over their heads: a starter condo or townhouse and ultimately the required single-family home, with however minis-cule a yard. They were local folks, and they lined up for a chance at the so-called “affordable housing” of the Leeward plain. And, of course, the much maligned developers and landowners wanted their profits.

New development needed infrastructure: roads, schools, rail transit. Gov. Ben Cayetano, despite a budget-trimmer’s heart in a difficult decade, built new schools on the Ewa plain. Newly minted Gov. Linda Lingle devoted her first news conference to expressing her support for double-decking the H-1 out to the Leeward Coast. And, most recently, construction of new public schools for Kapolei and Ewa Beach led the Department of Education’s capital improvement projects.

Hue and cries are heard with new tenor on Oahu, this time from the urban core. Two large Kakaako landowners want to maximize their profits, developers see potential profit in a nonexistent supply of housing, young professionals want affordable housing near where they work and play, and the construction trades see badly needed jobs.

Twenty-nine new high-rise condominiums are planned, many above current height limits but with “affordable” units. Opponents yell foul: “What of our views? What of congestion, the infrastructure to sustain all that growth?”

Planners say it can be done. Old story, new locale.