Honolulu Star-Advrtiser

Hawaii News | Volcanic Ash

By David Shapiro

January 24, 2021

Hawaii public works projects too often sputter because elected officials become more interested in promoting development around them than the projects themselves.

Honolulu rail was intended to relieve gridlocked traffic but fell apart when it became more about building houses on West Oahu farmlands and ritzy high-rises in town as lawmakers were seduced by the prospect of more tax revenues to spend, bountiful campaign donations and happy construction unions.

The decades-long Kakaako redevelopment was supposed to yield sorely needed workforce housing but produced mostly luxury condos for wealthy offshore speculators as officials catered to developers’ wishes instead of public needs.

Former Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s grandiose plan to redevelop Blaisdell Center lost public support when it became clear the new arena would be dwarfed by associated skyscrapers.

Attempts to relocate the Oahu Community Correctional Center have been more about freeing up the current Kalihi site for development than aligning our prison capacity to changing needs.

Now we have a good reason to worry the proposed new $350 million Aloha Stadium is beset by the same skewed mindset.

We’ve known for years we needed to fix or replace the aging stadium, but it didn’t gain traction until the federal government agreed to allow commercial development of the 98-acre Halawa site.

Now we have the New Aloha Stadium Entertainment District, in which a private partner would build a downsized stadium to obtain development rights on the remaining 80-plus acres for other entertain­ment venues, housing, hotels and retail.

Lawmakers promised it would avoid rail’s mistakes, but missteps in deciding which agency will run the project and a “monumental error” in enabling legislation have already raised doubts the project can meet its budget or projected completion for the University of Hawaii’s 2023 football opener.

Now the Stadium Authority says it’s shutting the existing stadium immediately because of disrepair, leaving UH football nowhere to play for three years or more.

UH President David Lassner complained UH has had little say in planning a stadium in which it’ll be the anchor tenant.

He renewed old concerns about excessive rental fees charged to UH football and state unwillingness to give UH a fair share of parking, concession, merchandise and advertising revenues it generates, contributing to the athletic department’s growing budget deficit.

UH is now looking at expanding Cooke Field, its on-campus practice facility, for home football games.

State response to concerns by UH and others resembles the city’s old dodge on rail, when critics were told at first it was too early to offer alternatives, then told when they tried again later that decisions were made and it was too late.

Despite assurances about stadium transparency, like rail’s failed public-private partnership it seems to boil down to secret negotiations with “preferred partners.”

It’s reasonable to fear this path will lead to a stadium that’s lost in surrounding development, over budget, behind schedule, doesn’t meet the primary tenant’s needs and is otherwise underused.