By Anthony Pignataro
We’re sitting at a table on the sidewalk in front of the Wailuku Coffee Company, over on Market Street. As we chat, people walk by at speeds not that much slower than the cars just a few feet away. It’s a great place to be discussing the redevelopment of Wailuku Town.
“Wailuku used to be a real hub on Maui,” said Rod Antone, the County of Maui’s communications director. “There were a bunch of family-owned stores, bakeries, shoe stores. I don’t want to disparage what we have now, but it’s now pawn shops and a place where government workers work.”
I sipped my iced tea and looked around. Yeah, pawn shops bracketed the coffee shop. But I could see the small shop If The Shoe Fits directly across the street. And around the corner behind me was Four Sisters Bakery, a Wailuku institution. And I even walked here, directly from my office across the street.
And to be perfectly honest, cities change. Population centers change, forcing commercial development to adjust. A century ago, Wailuku was home to the Maui Grand Hotel, the most luxurious accommodations on the island (the artist Georgia O’Keeffe stayed there when she visited Maui in 1939). Today, a Chevron station sits on the site.
That being said, Wailuku needs work. Today a substantial number of homes ring Wailuku’s commercial core, and there are few services (restaurants, night clubs, a grocery store) for these residents to use. Because so many people have to drive elsewhere to get groceries or anything else, the sidewalks around Wailuku Town have decayed into an obstacle course, marked with haphazard stretches of sidewalk–some of it ancient and pitted–or, more likely, narrow roads offering no protection for pedestrians whatsoever.
The county’s hoping a new effort called reWailuku will change things. David Yamashita, a county planner working with reWailuku, said the project began after Mayor Alan Arakawa, who grew up in Wailuku, asked the Planning Department for a vision of the town within the boundaries of the Maui Redevelopment Agency zone.
“ReWailuku is the first real step to making Wailuku a town like it used to be,” said Antone. “They’re asking questions. It’s grassroots community planning with the community having a real voice.” Antone added that Arakawa has been so pleased with the effort thus far that he recently presented the reWailuku project to a mayoral conference in Las Vegas.
For the last month, Yamashita and fellow county planner Erin Wade have worked out of an old storefront near the corner of Market and Main. But rather than sit there drawing on computers, they’ve spent their days posting photos and giant sheets of butcher paper on the walls.
Over the last month, nearly 500 people have walked in. The photos of many of them–as well as a massive satellite image of Wailuku and Kahului–cover a wall near the ReWailuku entrance.
The reWailuku experience requires a great deal of audience participation. All over the room, residents have scribbled on Post-It notes or written comments on butcher paper or placed little colored dots on 50 photos of street scenes from around the world. The photos include shots of street festivals, plazas, sidewalk cafes, storefronts, parks–a entire photo essay of urban life around the world. The project also benefits from a series of “walking audits” organized by Dan Burden, executive director of the Walkable and Living Communities Institute in Port Townshend, Washington (though the county didn’t hire Burden, his findings will be made part of the final reWailuku project).
For Wade and Yamashita, it’s all a bit bewildering. Looking over the wall, I noticed that one photo of a city street had a Post-It marked “Too urban” and few dots. But directly beneath it, another photo of a street that looked remarkably similar was covered in dots.
“It might be the pavement,” Wade speculated, saying the unpopular photo had an asphalt street while the popular one had stamped concrete, suggesting brick work. “Or maybe it’s that the buildings [in the “too urban” photo] seem high-rise.” Because of the subjective nature of the project, Wade and Yamashita try to converse with people placing dots to find out what exactly they like.
“Design is not science,” Yamashita said. “It’s trial and error.”
Of course, it can also be poetry. The far wall is covered in butcher paper. Above each sheet is a fill-in-the-blank question about Wailuku. It’s another way Wade and Yamashita set it up for people to tell them what they want the town to look like. Under the question “I wish there was a place to [BLANK] in Wailuku,” residents wrote some very interesting answers:
“Buy healthy groceries.”
“Enjoy adult beverages responsibly.”
“Sit on ‘grassey’ patches of land that invite me to hang out with my shoes off…”
Somehow over the next few months, Yamashita and Wade need to distill all this community feedback into a detailed financing plan that includes hard numbers illustrating how much money they need, how much sidewalk concrete they need poured, and so on.
On Feb. 9, Governor Neil Abercrombie stopped by the reWailuku office to offer his own ideas and support. He was effusive in his praise of the project, repeatedly using words like “exciting” and “tremendous” and “impressive.”
“I did not comprehend when I came that it would be this exciting and comprehensive,” he said. “It’s quite thrilling to be here.”
Rather than simply shake hands, make a speech and pose for a group photo (though he did all those things), Abercrombie seemed genuinely interested in the project. After walking around the room and placing a couple dots on photos he said reminded him of street scenes in Paris, he and many of the few dozen people in attendance sat on folding chairs and actually discussed Wailuku and redevelopment theory.
“How do you take an urban center and humanize it?” Abercrombie asked rhetorically. “We’re not asked to imagine something in the abstract that ends up being a George Lucas film. ‘Where can you walk?’ is virtually unheard of these days in an urban area. Even a path to a parking garage–if it’s landscaped, you have a different view of the world around you. Lewis Mumford would be so pleased, I’m sure.”
That’s right: Abercrombie referenced sociologist and writer Lewis Mumford. Twice, actually, by my count. The architect Frank Lloyd Wright, too.
Mumford lived from 1895 to 1990. He wrote a lot about a lot, but Abercrombie kept going back to him because of his writings on cities and urban life. For instance, Mumford writing a half century ago about a subject near and dear to our hearts today that has particular relevance to the reWailuku project: “The right to have access to every building in the city by private motorcar in an age when everyone possesses such a vehicle is the right to destroy the city.”
In many ways, reWailuku is an attempt to deal with cars. And the centerpiece of that attempt is the Parking Structure, slated for construction on the Wailuku Municipal Parking Lot, which is bordered by Market, Main, Vineyard and Church streets.
One of the most striking images tacked up on the reWailuku walls is the “Wailuku Town Concept Sketch.” It was drawn up by Yamashita, who insists that it’s “merely a concept and is meant as a starting point” in discussions on making a dent in Wailuku’s 748-parking space deficit.
Wade said reaction to the whole idea of building a parking structure in the center of Wailuku (which dates back many years, in fact) has been “mixed.” Judging by the residents who scrawled “Yes” and “Hell No” (Wade scratched out the “Hell”) on a parking structure concept sheet, “mixed” is an understatement. In fact, the proposed parking garage is incredibly controversial, in part because no one has yet come forward with an explanation of where all the people (mostly government employees) would park during construction.
Yamashita’s concept mixes parking with pedestrian corridors. Wade said some of those corridors take ad hoc paths locals take by cutting across various lots to get around town and make them official, with added lights and landscaping. The concept also rebuilds old Pili Street, which would otherwise bisect the parking lot, and adds a number of mixed use buildings, trees and even a small plaza on Vineyard Street.
Wade said some of the new mixed use shops would be just 20 feet deep, allowing for the kind of small noodle houses and restaurants found in cities like Portland. The concept also shows the small grassy lot used as a beer garden during First Friday parties becoming a mixed-use development, but Wade said many residents said they liked having just a small plot of grass–to say nothing of its gorgeous mural–in the middle of town.
Whether Yamashita’s concept goes forward, or something entirely new comes around, something will have to be done about the town’s parking situation because no matter how much we hate our cars, they’re not going away. Of course, making Wailuku an easier town to walk in and through will go a long way to helping.
In fact, Abercrombie noted during his visit that people seemingly have no problem walking the length of the Queen Kaahumanu Center in Kahului, but balk at crossing Wailuku Town on foot, even though the distances are roughly equivalent. Or, as one woman said to Yamashita during her visit to the reWailuku project, “People need to get used to walking again.”
Given the financial and physical land constraints facing Wailuku, there really doesn’t seem to be any other solution.