Lift rules holding back conversion of office buildings to housing

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Downtown Honolulu, Hawaii
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By Keli‘i Akina

I have said many times that there is no single solution to Hawaii’s housing crisis. We need a variety of approaches to improve the situation.

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One promising option is so-called adaptive reuse — that is, turning older office or commercial buildings into residential apartments or condominiums.

Keli’i Akina

In the wake of the COVID-19 lockdowns, technological changes and other social changes, there are more and more underused buildings throughout Hawaii’s urban areas that could be repurposed to help address Hawaii’s housing crisis.

Examples include the former Walmart building at the corner of King and Bethel streets, the nearby Davies Pacific Center, and the former Bishop Building at 1132 Bishop St., now called The Residences at Bishop Place.

The new owner of the Walmart building, Avalon Group, is envisioning a site that could feature up to 100 new residences, conveniently located near stores, offices and transit stops.

The same company has been working to transform the Davies Pacific Center into a 352-unit residential project to be called “Modea.”

But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for the developers.

For example, last year I wrote about how the Davies Pacific Center conversion was being held up by a zoning rule that requires residential spaces to have windows that open.

The rule doesn’t make allowances for air conditioning and ventilation systems, and refitting every window in an office building is expensive, if not financially unfeasible.

The developer requested a waiver for the project, but a year later, the permit is still pending.

In lieu of action by the city, two state legislative bills could help speed up adaptive reuse projects — HB2090 and SB2948 — which would allow residential uses in areas zoned for commercial use, and require that Hawaii’s four counties allow adaptive reuse in their county building codes.

The point of the bills is that it is highly inefficient to force homebuilders to lobby for a change in the law every time a new zoning challenge arises.

It would be far better for the counties to address these barriers ahead of time by adapting their building and zoning rules to encourage adaptive reuse.

Then Hawaii’s deteriorating city centers could blossom once again, while also providing islanders with something they desperately need — new housing.
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Keli‘i Akina is president and CEO of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.

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Grassroot Institute of Hawaii is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, the free market and accountable government. Through research papers, policy briefings, commentaries and conferences, the Institute seeks to educate and inform Hawaii's policy makers, news media and general public. Committed to its independence, the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii neither seeks nor accepts government funding. The institute is a 501(c)(3) organization supported by all those who share a concern for Hawaii's future and an appreciation of the role of sound ideas and more informed choices.

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