It’s Time for OHA to Change its Messaging About Kakaʻako Makai
by OHA Trustee Keli‘i Akina, PhD, Ka Wai Ola, June 1, 2023
As a Trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), I am dedicated to the advancement of Native Hawaiians and all people in Hawaiʻi.
That is why it disheartens me to see that OHA, for the third consecutive year, has been unsuccessful in obtaining permission from the legislature to construct three residential towers on our Kakaʻako Makai property known as Hakuone. OHA has attributed our legislative failures to dysfunctional politics and racial prejudice, among other reasons. However, I believe that the messaging OHA uses to promote this development project could be connected to our failure to rally support in the legislature.
OHA has presented its case for lifting residential restrictions at Hakuone as a “matter of justice,” citing historical injustices against Native Hawaiians as grounds for legislative approval.
For instance, OHA has argued that we are victims of racial discrimination because the legislature has denied its request to build residential towers while allowing “non-Hawaiian” businesses across the street to do so on their properties.
Additionally, OHA claims that it was “short-changed” in the 2012 settlement agreement, as the Senate Judiciary and Labor Committees implied that entitlements such as lifting residential restrictions could be obtained in the future.
Although these claims have been made, the available facts do not entirely support them. In reality, restrictions on residential development have been in place since 2006, six years before we acquired the lands in question. At that time, Alexander and Baldwin, Inc., a historically significant “Big 5” company, was denied permission to construct residential towers. These restrictions were not established on the basis of prejudice against Hawaiians.
Regarding the assertion that OHA was short-changed in the 2012 settlement, the residential restrictions were public knowledge before the agreement was entered into. We accepted the offer “as is.” Whether some legislators in 2012 made representations to the contrary, the settlement agreement makes no mention of any entitlements. OHA’s Trustees in 2012 had a fiduciary duty to Native Hawaiian beneficiaries to exercise due diligence before accepting any offer.
Despite recent setbacks, there is still hope for OHA’s Hakuone vision. Our agency’s marketing and communications efforts during the past legislative session elevated the conversation about Hakuone and the needs of Hawaiians to new heights. Through a recent survey, nearly 80% of voters indicated that they support OHA’s overall development project while two-thirds of voters support the lifting of residential restrictions. This demonstrates significant public support.*
The strongest argument for allowing residential development at Hakuone is the project’s merits. Developing residential units would help address Honolulu’s critical housing shortage, and OHA could use the resulting revenues to meet the needs of Hawaiians. This would be a win-win solution for everyone.
Rather than framing the issue as a matter of justice, we should emphasize the benefits of the project and how it would benefit the community. By taking responsibility for our decisions and focusing on our strengths, OHA can build credibility and move forward from the past. Hakuone can become a showcase for culture, community, economic opportunity, and civic pride in Honolulu, benefitting all residents of Hawaiʻi.
It’s time for OHA to change its messaging.
*Grove Insight via Kuilei Consulting, “Hakuone Community Outreach Campaign Report,” May 4, 2023.