Kaka‘ako: What's In It For Us?

Mar 3, 2020

Thanks to  Pow!Wow! Hawai‘i 2020, there are more than fifty new murals in Kaka‘ako, from the Children’s Discovery Center to Ward Theatres, to Mother Waldron Park. The street murals are the most visible evidence of a small business shift in the area.  Developer Christian O'Connor discusses how the huge changes in Kaka‘ako are supposed to work for Honolulu as a whole.

The Children's Discovery Center in Kaka'ako makai got two new murals, this one by international design and merchandising star Kevin Lyons.
Credit Noe Tanigawa / Hawai'i Public Radio

In 2008, the year of the economic downturn, Christian O'Connor was charged with overseeing implementation of Kamehameha Schools' development plan in the heart of Honolulu. It was a daunting challenge at the time, but O'Connor looked rather gratified when I ran into him at an art opening in Kaka'ako the other night. After investing a lot of sweat equity, artists have done pretty well in the area.

“Now they’re making money, they’ve been able to create more than a living wage, and have been able to provide for their families doing art,” says O'Connor.

A generation of artists who design tattoos, fabric, graphic media, corporate interiors, and street murals is alive and making a scrappy living in Honolulu now, and another generation is coming on up.

“I think Stanford Carr did a really great job with their asset across Ala Moana Shopping Center," O'Connor continures. "There’s bold graffiti art where Kamehameha Schools put it on 680 Ala Moana, the 54 residential units there. Those murals, we have to pay for, as developers.”

Walking around, there’s a grittier vibe ‘Ewa of Ward Avenue, where there are more small property owners, and Kamehameha Schools, KS, owns about 30 acres now called Our Kaka‘ako.  The KS plan, according to O’Connor is for 4.4 million square feet of residential and retail with some light industrial.  They are aiming for a walkable, vibrant, urban community.

“Initially what’s really exciting about redevelopment work,' says O'Connor, "Is we get an opportunity as an asset manager, as real estate people, it’s like urban gardening for us. You know beautiful gardens make beautiful places. ”

In the case of Kaka‘ako, Kamehameha Schools encouraged street art, craft breweries, art and design workshops, cafes, see a pattern emerging as far as intended audience? All this alongside the high-rise housing. O’Connor says there’s a magic to that moment in real estate development time when the construction process precludes market rental rates and lower rents allow unconventional ideas to get a shot.

O’Connor says there are ways to foster economic ecosystems within a community. “The whole idea is you build housing, build space for different businesses, and you try to keep the dollars going from one block to the next block, from one block to the next. So if I’m a cool retail space and I need some signage done, I go to Lana Lane, so that transaction literally happens from one block to another.”

“What’s cool about all these local businesses being there is that the dollar stays in the city. That’s a bigger vision of what we want,” continues O'Connor, saying that the real questions are, “Can we keep our money here? Can we keep our value here? Can we work together to create even more value and can we monetize that and keep a living wage for all of us?”

Christian O’Connor left Kamehameha Schools in 2014--he now works on affordable housing developments with City Center LLC.