Public, private investment spurs Waikiki rebirth

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Travel Weekly Hawaii editor Doug Oakley joined a group of out-of-town mayors on a tour of Waikiki that was part of the city's Mayor's Asia-Pacific Environment Summit in Honolulu.

HONOLULU -- Now that a $13 million revitalization project is nearly complete on Kuhio Beach and in Kapiolani Park here, Honolulu's city fathers are adding more Hawaii to a destination they say had become too much like the rest of urban America and too little like an island getaway.

"Our mayor [Jeremy Harris] is biting the bullet and trying to correct the mistakes of the past and to redesign Waikiki," said Peter Apo, executive director of Honolulu's Office of Waikiki Development. "We are trying to soften the destination to recapture the allure of it."

Toward that end, he said the city is promoting free cultural events to tourists as an alternative to paid tours and shows; pushing for more sidewalk dining and cafes; completing the two-mile, self-guided Waikiki Historic Trail with historic markers, and kicking off a new business improvement district that has its own trash and sidewalk cleanup crews and paid "Aloha Patrol" members who provide security and general aid to visitors.

A $13 million dollar renovation project aims to redesign the Waikiki waterfront. Apo made the comments on remaking Waikiki to several mainland and foreign mayors on a trolley tour during the Mayor's Asia-Pacific Environmental Summit. The tour was called Visitor Destination Development for the Pacific -- Waikiki, a Story of Do's and Don'ts.

Some of the destination's problems, which the city is now taking steps to counteract, are that Waikiki had become a place where not many locals mingle with visitors; much of the beach is walled off by densely packed high-rise hotels with little beach access, and there is a visitors' perception that Waikiki "looks much like the place you left" on the mainland rather than an exotic island destination.

That's the bad news.

The good news is that right now Waikiki is reaping the rewards after several years of public and private investment that has changed its look and feel.

Apo said the city has received about $150,000 in donated air time on hotel television information stations to advertise free cultural events such as the Kuhio Beach Torchlighting & Hula Show every night at 6:30 p.m.; performances of the Royal Hawaiian Band, which plays at the new bandstand in Kapiolani Park at 2 p.m. every Sunday, and performances by local bands every Friday at 5:30 p.m., also at the bandstand.

Getting tourists to attend local events is one way of giving the visitor a richer cultural experience, Apo said. "Tourists much prefer activities that are shared with the local people," he added to his mayoral audience.

"If you alienate and separate the local people from the visitors [by having visitors attend only paid attractions], you end up with a theme park. It's tourists wandering around looking at each other."

Hawaii Hotel Association president Murray Towill said the city government's interest in Waikiki in the past few years is a welcome change. "I think there is a feeling that the city has a role to play in Waikiki and that has been a catalyst for private change," said Towill.

For instance, a zoning law change in 1995 that makes it easier for hotels to renovate and add more rooms has led hotels to spruce up their products.

Also, in the past two years, changes in hotel ownership from cash-strapped Japanese to better-fixed U.S. owners has led to an increase in property investment, said Towill.

"And with the free [cultural events] the city has clearly made an effort to enhance the entertainment opportunities," said Towill.

From one side of Waikiki to the other, down the main beachfront strip on Kalakaua Avenue, Apo pointed out to curious mayors from California to Hanoi the mistakes made and the actions currently under way to correct them.

Richard Murphy, San Diego's mayor said he took the tour "because Honolulu shares many of San Diego's problems."

All Star Hawaii, a sports restaurant, offers sidewalk dining, something the city of Honolulu is trying to encourage in Waikiki. "We're an oceanfront city; we just doubled the size of our convention center, and there are proposals right now for three beachfront hotels," said Murphy. "It's tempting to build the hotels because they offer rooms for the convention center, but do you want to wall off the beach to do that? It's a delicate balance."

At the beginning of Waikiki on Kalakaua Avenue, Apo pointed out several new developments that he said were well thought out in terms of density and landscaping, including Niketown, All Star Hawaii (a sports restaurant with an outdoor cafe), Banana Republic, the $140 million low-rise retail complex under construction by the Honu Group and the new $65 million DFS Galleria Waikiki shopping center.

"The Honu Group has done really well with its landscaping design and tree canopies," said Apo. "It will have four retail buildings and none will be over four stories high."

Just down Kalakaua Avenue from those developments is Planet Hollywood, which offers sidewalk dining, something the city encourages.

"In the past it has been impossible to offer sidewalk cafes because of the laws," said Apo. "We are trying to ease the laws on that, and Planet Hollywood has been the first to go after it."

Next on the tour was the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center, a design mistake, Apo said, which completely cut off access to the beach. The city is "in serious discussions to redevelop the entire center," he said.

Across the street from the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center is the International Marketplace, "which is kind of seedy, actually," according to Apo. There, too, the city is thinking about redevelopment.

Farther down Kalakaua Avenue where the wall of hotels ends and you can see the ocean for the first time from Kalakaua Avenue is the newly renovated Kuhio Beach.

"This is one of the few areas in Waikiki that is open to the beach, and last year we finished a $13 million renovation that goes from the Sheraton Moana Surfrider all the way into Kapiolani Park," said Apo.

The last stop on the tour was the War Memorial Natatorium, a closed saltwater swimming pool on the ocean in Kapiolani Park. The city already spent $9 million fixing up the ornate facade and adding bathrooms and now is waiting for the state to approve health rules governing saltwater pools before it begins renovating the pool.

The city will start planning the renovation of the pool in about three months and will spend about $7 million on that project, said Apo.

Mel Kaneshigi, senior vice president of Outrigger Enterprises, which has 20 hotels in Waikiki, said the area is coming back. "The city took a leadership position starting with the zoning changes in 1995, which spurred some hotel renovations and now there clearly is a momentum building," he said.

Kaneshigi said the entrance in the past two years of Marriott with two hotels on either side of Waikiki, the new Radisson Waikiki and the addition of a $95 million Kalia tower at the Hilton Hawaiian Village are examples of the private sector being spurred on by changes in government attitude.

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