Kakaako Waterfront Park was supposed to be the kind of scenic public space that leaps, unprompted, to the imagination at the words “Honolulu” and “park.”
On the cusp of its opening in 1992, politicians spoke about how it was going to be “people-oriented.” The park would become a place where families could picnic, play and look out at the ocean, with the Honolulu skyline as a backdrop.
There was even talk of keeping Kakaako Park open at night. Its sprawling 30 acres would connect the downtown area with a beach park miles away — a continuous ribbon of green that could provide a respite from the area’s skyscrapers and streets.
That was a quarter century ago. To say things have not gone as planned would be a massive understatement.
Within just a few years of opening, the park was dogged by complaints about upkeep, damage and trash. Then came the homelessness crisis.
Hawaii has been struggling with a growing homeless population for years, but its state and county governments have yet to find an effective solution to the encampments that keep popping up around the islands.
Unsurprisingly, the governor’s declaration that homelessness in Hawaii was an official “emergency” failed to fix the problem. In 2015, Kakaako was host to what CBS News at the time called “one of the largest homeless encampments in the nation.”
Fast forward to 2017, and it is clear that the combined failure of the state to effectively manage its public spaces or deal with the growing homeless population has been catastrophic for Kakaako Waterfront Park.
It is estimated that at one point about 300 homeless were camped inside the park. Vandalism was rampant, packs of stray dogs roamed the grounds, and water pipes were broken and leaking. The park’s inhabitants had torn apart the light poles so they could splice into them to run power to televisions and other private electronic gear.
So what happened? The state agency lacked the will to move against the squatters. It did not want to address the vandalism, the structural damage or public health hazards created by those who were building semi-permanent shelters in the park.
In desperation, the state Hawaii Community Development Authority (HCDA) — the semi-autonomous state agency that owns and manages the park — decided to close it.
Jesse Souki, HCDA executive director, baldly admitted that things had deteriorated beyond its ability to fix them.
“It’s reached a point where we just can’t manage it,” he said. “Right now, with dog attacks and exposed wires and broken plumbing, it’s just not safe. We need to shut it down and take a pause.”
Repairs are estimated at $500,000, and there is no word on when the park will reopen — or whether there will be a plan in place to prevent the same thing from happening again.
Public consensus is that the park’s closure represents a massive policy failure on the part of the state, both in terms of dealing with the homeless crisis and in managing public lands. That seems inarguable. But it’s worth asking whether leaving the park’s welfare in the hands of bureaucrats and politicians doomed it from the start.
Kakaako Waterfront Park has no advocates and no guardians dedicated to protecting its purpose and beauty. It is completely dependent on the vagaries of local politics and budgets. Given a choice between maintaining the park (or just enforcing laws that would prevent homeless squatting) and turning a blind eye, the powers-that-be turned myopia into an art form. There was no one to hold them accountable, no constituency to appease, and no reason to go through the trouble and expense of keeping the park clean, safe and well-maintained.
Government is a notoriously inefficient manager, and the waterfront park in Kakaako shows just how badly things can go when it is in charge of maintaining public lands. Worse still, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Just a few miles from HCDA’s Kakaako Waterfront Park is the city’s Kapiolani Park. While the Kakaako park has declined, Kapiolani Park has been protected by a trust and watchdog group that is very willing to take the city to court to ensure that the purpose of the park is fulfilled.
The lesson is clear: Preserving parks means creating safeguards against government mismanagement. There are many ways to achieve this, from public-private partnerships to nonprofit trusts. The key is having a separate organization invested in the welfare of the park and involved in its management.
There likely are plenty of groups around Hawaii that would be willing to manage Kakaako Waterfront Park instead of the state. Why not give them a try?
Malia Blom Hill is the policy director of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii (@GrassrootHawaii), a public policy think tank dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, free markets and limited, accountable government