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Back to Urban Sprawl
This is the first of a series of articles discussing a history of League's participation in making Honolulu what it is today.
The last half of the 20th Century has seen the doubling of the world's population and also of that of the US and of Hawaii's. Oahu's population grew from some 350,000 to over 800,000. Largely rural areas gave way to urban use resulting in "urban sprawl"-defined as a largely uncontrolled spreading of new urban development without any clear pattern of where it should go and how adequate transportation and public facilities are to be provided.
Here in Honolulu, as in many other parts of the world, demands grew for getting control of scattered, unplanned "urban sprawl". Statehood for Hawaii in 1959 was soon followed by a new State Land Use Law and county planning and zoning laws. On Oahu we adopted a new County General Plan followed by the first viable zoning plans we had ever had.
The Honolulu League of Women Voters was actively involved in this process, particularly between 1970 and the middle and later 1990's. Our Honolulu Planning and Zoning Committee participated in the formulation of plans at the state and county levels. We organized and participated in countless public hearings and worked closely with interested parties on various zoning provisions and specific project and public development proposals.
It was a period of rapid and extensive urbanization, and we seemed to be in the thick of every major development controversy, and there were lots of them. Though we didn't always persuade the "decision-makers" to act as we recommended, we won more of these arguments than we lost. To list a few: overall densities in apartment areas were decreased and more open space required (Bill 48 in the 1970's); a questionable affordable housing development on what is now the Waiola Regional Park site was stopped; a privately built Convention Center promoted by developer Sukamto Sia (now in custody accused of fraud) was stopped by court action initiated by us, but later thrown out of court when the State took the project over; a $3 billion commuter rail system was stopped when we proved that its costs were far out of line with benefits claimed, even when we used the City's own figures to make our case; a bill to increase densities in rebuilding Waikiki was abandoned in favor of a far greater control of such redevelopment (1992-93); a tax proposal to reduce the progressive State income tax while increasing the regressive excise tax was scaled down before adoption; and the development of Central Oahu was finally slowed down (1991) making it more in line with the General Plan.
Unfortunately, the situation has changed a great deal in the last few years. The City Charter was amended (illegally, according to a suit we filed against the City) to combine the planning and zoning functions, which in effect made the planning function far less effective and the zoning procedures easier for developers. All these activities are now combined in a "Department of Planning and Permitting," which receives far less City Council attention than the separate functions used to get. Considerable weight is given to a series of "vision" teams and neighborhood transit committees, with less attention to elected neighborhood boards and formal development area proposals. Proposals are considered and often approved which are clearly contrary to "general plan policies" or development plan" decisions. Development is approved outside the "urban boundary" lines previously adopted. Thus, we are moving backwards to the "urban sprawl" conditions we started to correct thirty years ago.
Basically, we no longer have in the City administration or on the City Council many people who actually understand what city planning is all about. We now are concerned with specific traffic tie-ups, or locations where prostitution seems to be on the rise, or the builders of "big box" stores, and whether a neighboring area raises objections to a specific development proposal. We plan by trading off proposals between City Council members by making deals, by solving today's problems at the expense of tomorrow's. If this goes on, we can imagine what tomorrow's urban sprawl will be. As growth continues and is permitted in accordance with the desires and pressures of different groups within the population, the urban sprawl we saw in the 1960's and 1970's will seem only minor compared with what the next fifty years will bring.
Attempts to stop growth and go back to the days of taro and grassthatched roofs will not succeed. If we don't face up to what is coming and make decisions to handle it so as to still have a desirable urban environment while accommodating it, we will just look like another disordered and ill-kempt urban area. It will contain all kinds of mixed land uses and activities without rhyme or reason and enjoy no orderly pattern, just miles and miles of "urban sprawl". Let us hope not.
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