In a unanimous vote, members of the city's Planning Commission approved a zoning change Wednesday that will transform the old Kam Drive-in site in Aiea into a sprawling development that features five towers, 1,500 residential units, 220,000 square feet of retail space and possibly a hotel with as many as 150 rooms.
Developer Robertson Property Group plans a 13-year build out that could encompass as many as five phases. The Los Angeles-based company has dubbed the project Live, Work, Play Aiea, and hopes to break ground in 2015. The first phase of construction would be dedicated toward retail and office space.
The zoning change would allow Robertson to build two towers of 150 feet, and three towers of 350, 300, and 250 feet respectively on 14 acres of land. During public testimony Wednesday, there was only support for the project.
"You just got to build it, because if you guys build it, they going to come," said Clifford Tamanaha, who was among five Aiea residents who testified in support of the project.
In a break from tradition, Robertson wants to sign a development agreement with the city instead of a unilateral agreement, which has been the norm for developers on Oahu for years. The development agreement would lock in project requirements by Robertson, even after a transit oriented development overlay goes into effect years later.
"For us, we just wanted a certainty and I think it's a certainty for both us as well as for the city," said John Manavian, Robertson's executive vice president.
Opposition to the $766 million project has been mostly focused on traffic, although some residents of the nearby 33-story Lele Pono condominium have complained about obstructed views of Pearl Harbor.
As part of the development, Robertson has committed to widening Moanalua Road and Kaonohi Street, as well as developing a "main street" through the project that connects both thoroughfares. The venture will also include 3,149 off-street parking stalls, with 2,772 of them located underground.
"I think we added that main street component not only for people to avoid the intersection, but also to connect with the adjoining property so that their traffic wasn't also on the road," said Manavian. "I think all those things together are going to help mitigate the traffic concerns."
However, Robertson has taken issue with a recommendation from the Hawaii Department of Transportation that would force the developer to make intersection improvements where Kaonohi Street meets Kamehameha Highway, and at Pali Momi and Hekaha streets nearby. An independent study by Roberston estimated the cost of such improvements at $32.6 million. HDOT said the improvements are needed to change the current level of service on the highway from a level F to E.
"We're a little bit puzzled when that's a requirement of our development and we haven't even impacted that aspect of it," said Manavian.
But in a concession to Robertson, the city's Department of Planning and Permitting agreed it would be unreasonable to require the developer to fund improvements along Kamehameha Highway, since those improvements could not be attributed to the requested zoning change.
As part of the development, Robertson is required to dedicate 30 percent of its residential units as affordable under city guidelines that calculate average median income. However, the company has proposed locating half of the 450 affordable units elsewhere in Aiea, but still within walking distance to a planned rail station on Kamehameha Highway.
"So, a lot of it is just an option where we might find a way to really make it more affordable because we're not locked in to a construction type that is more expensive," explained Manavian.
Under existing zoning that mandated a 60 foot height limit, Robertson could have constructed 2 million square feet of retail space on the property, which Manavian said would have made traffic about 50 percent worse.
The next step for the project is to go before the Honolulu City Council, which can add conditions to the development agreement before final approval.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated the development could feature a hotel with as many as 175 rooms.