There's a luxury condominium tower rising near Ala Moana Beach Park between Waikiki and Downtown Honolulu. The penthouse, which comes with its own swimming pool, will retail for a cool $50 million.
Yup, welcome to the new Kaka'ako - the subject of the third film in the Future of Paradise documentary trilogy.
Filmmakers Mike Hinchey and Anthony Aalto are currently researching and preparing a shooting schedule to start later this summer on The Third City which will take viewers on an exploration of Honolulu's hippest and fastest growing neighborhood. As with everywhere else on the island, development in the area calls into question the very concept of growth and what the future of O'ahu should look like.
With interviews planned with the major developers, experts, politicians, opponents and advocates, the film will help audiences reach a better understanding of the issues and the motivations of both sides. While it would be easy to dismiss proponents as greedy developers and opponents as selfish NIMBYists the truth is much more complicated.
The film will explore how and why the area is gentrifying so fast. With more than 30 new skyscrapers planned at a combined cost of some $13 billion, the population of the neighborhood is expected to triple to over 30,000 - which is what led Governor Neil Abercrombie to dub it "The Third City." In his enthusiasm Abercrombie even proposed building a 650 foot tall tower; 50% higher than anything built until now in Honolulu. The Hawai'i Community Development Agency, which oversees development in the area, went one better and advocated allowing 700 foot skyscrapers - that's taller than New York's Trump Tower! We intend to put officials at HCDA on the spot and ask them the hard questions.
One might expect the rapid pace of development and ostentatious gentrification to generate a passionate response - and it has. A vocal coalition of opponents, grouped under the name Save Our Kaka'ako, has been staging protests, lobbying politicians, and even taking the issue to court. Their critics dismiss them as a wealthy minority selfishly trying to protect their views. But they say they are serving the community as a whole by protecting the last undeveloped stretch of coastline in the city. We will spend time with them to see Kaka'ako through their eyes, learn what life in the neighborhood is like today and to better understand their concerns.
These opponents argue that the scale of development will impose a massive strain on resources like roads, sewers and schools and block views of and access to the ocean. And they say the area is vulnerable to sea level rise. For all these reasons they expect the support of the progressive and environmentalist community.
But not all environmentalists are sympathetic to the opposition.
There are those who argue that in order to preserve the remaining rural areas of O'ahu, all new development must be concentrated in the traditional urban core within walking distance of the new train that will pass through the heart of Kaka'ako. Such development, they say, must be tall and dense to accommodate the growing population that otherwise will increase pressure for more of the suburban sprawl that is consuming the island's farmland and causing the worst highway congestion in the nation.
Some, like the Sierra Club, say that by "taller" they mean no more than 8 stories. In any case, some advocates suggest that the real problem is with the concept of urbanity itself. They note that many people who live on O'ahu don't refer to their capital as a city. They call it 'Town.' They say "I live in Town," or "I've got to go into Town." But Honolulu isn't a town. It's the sixth densest city in the USA with more high-rise buildings than San Francisco or Houston or Berlin. It stopped being a sleepy Polynesian village many decades ago.
Not only should Kaka'ako be densely developed, but these new urbanists insist that it is vital that Kaka'ako be developed in a way that creates a true urban experience of mixed uses, with shops, jobs and residences of different income levels all coexisting along streets filled with cafes and convenience stores that are designed to make walking and cycling easy and pleasurable. Such a neighborhood they say will entice suburban dwellers back to the city and save the countryside.
In other words they see Kaka'ako as an opportunity to preserve the best of O'ahu.
Skeptics insist the neighborhood will simply become a millionaires' playground.
The Third City will try to find out which side is more likely to be right.