Oh look, more luxury condos are coming to Wailea. The 70-unit Keala O Wailea project, situated near the Wailea Gateway Center, should open near the end of 2017, the Dec. 10 Maui News tells us. Though the story appears above the fold on the paper’s front page, there’s nothing whatsoever new about it.
The condos will retail for between $700,000 and $1.8 million (not surprising) and most are already sold (ditto). It’s also not particularly shocking that more than half of the buyers don’t actually live on Maui–this has been true of the island as a whole since about 2008. The project’s lava rock walls, metal gates, pale stucco walls and green tile roofs make the new development completely indistinguishable from the rest of Wailea. And though the News insists that the project will pave the way for affordable housing, rest assured that said housing will go up outside the confines of Wailea.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Wailea, though little more than a playground for rich tourists and off-island owners, was to be much more. In fact, Wailea’s first developers sold the community to Maui as a revolutionary prototype community far closer to Disney’s EPCOT Center than anything that exists on the island today.
Of course, Maui was a very different place back then. The rising power and influence of labor unions on Maui throughout the 1940s and 1950s had an unexpected problem–though workers on plantations were able to get raises and better benefits, the big landowners instituted hiring freezes to cut their costs. For anyone graduating from the island high schools in the late 1950s and 1960s, finding work on Maui became all but impossible.
For that reason, according to former Maui Planning Commissioner Dick Mayer, today’s environmental issues and concerns weren’t mentioned back then. Instead, people wanted jobs–lots and lots of jobs–so that Maui families didn’t have to watch as their kids moved to the Mainland to find careers.
“Decision-makers didn’t consider the environment an issue back then,” Mayer told me. “The agenda was, ‘just create jobs to keep our kids here.’”
Two key events took place in 1959 that provided a solution: Hawaii statehood and the introduction of jet airline travel. Suddenly, Hawaii was an easy, safe travel destination for millions of Americans. It was still exotic, but as a full part of the United States, it seemed far more accessible.
Hawaii–and Maui–would need more places for them to stay. The development of Ka‘anapali in the early 1960s had been a major success, but Wailea had the potential of being even bigger.
In 1957, Matson–owner of the famed White Ships that had been bringing tourists to Hawaii since the 1930s–had purchased the 1,500-acre Wailea region from Ulupalakua Ranch. When Alexander & Baldwin bought Matson in the late 1960s, they hired Grosvenor International to develop the property to cater to exactly those tourists. The plan devised by Grosvenor–billed as “The City of Flowers” and detailed in Maui News stories from 1968 to 1971, makes for fascinating reading today.
The project was, to put it mildly, massive. It had two main components. “It will be an entirely new town catering primarily to the tourist who wants to escape from the noise and bustle of city traffic,” The Maui News wrote in a Mar. 15, 1969 story. “Wailea will have a permanent population of 50,000, which directly or indirectly will derive its living from the development.”
Let’s unpack this carefully. According to the 1970 census, Maui’s population as a whole was around 47,000. But Grosvenor was planning to build a town–not a mere “community”–of 50,000 in Wailea. Though Wailea would be oriented towards tourists–complete with 11,000 hotel units–the people who worked in the hotels would also live within the Wailea town, in 8,000 apartment and residential units.
These are staggering numbers, especially considering that Wailea’s population today hovers just beneath 6,000. What’s more, Grosvenor wanted Wailea to be automobile-free.
“Cars will be confined to the fringes of the Community,” said the Mar. 15, 1969 Maui News story. “The only vehicles permitted within the built-up areas will be those providing an internal transportation system, such as tractor trains, and a restricted number of service vehicles. Special heavily screened parking areas will be provided at convenient locations.”
Tractor trains moving workers and tourists alike through Wailea. But Grosvenor didn’t stop there. They also envisioned “pedestrian streets,” which would “meander throughout the complex, creating a theme of discovery and surprise,” according to The Maui News.
Grosvenor took the “city” in “City of Flowers” seriously. Wailea today is the definition of sprawl, with no walking streets or central public space–the opposite of what Grosvenor first envisioned and sold to the Maui Planning Commission.
“The central core area, around which the development will grow, will be both a gathering place and the communal center,” The Maui News wrote. “It will include a variety of restaurants, shops, amusement and cultural facilities. It will feature a town square, highlighted throughout by clusters of flowers, close to Wailea’s central beach.”
Grosvenor estimated that it would take about 20 years to build all that out–putting a completion date around 1990. If this is starting to sound like science fiction, check out this statement from Grosvenor President Gilbert Hardman, quoted in the article: “Architecture will be simple and unobtrusive, woven into the terrain and the landscaping,” Hardman said in the Mar. 15, 1969 article. Architects need not achieve their effects by constantly imposing structures… blatant and pretentious buildings must be avoided.”
For Maui News readers, none of this was surprising. Six months earlier, the paper had first written that Grosvenor had big plans, saying that Hardman “believes in planning a development that fits into the existing community, rather than importing a concept foreign to the local environment and forcing it into a community.”
Nearly two years later, then-A&B President Allen C. Wilcox, Jr. echoed those sentiments. “Wailea not only would not harm the natural beauty of the site, but enhance it in every possible way to make it an outstanding resort and residential community,” he said in a Feb. 11, 1971 Maui News story.
Throughout 1970 and the first part of 1971, Grosvenor’s dream started to take shape. A site blessing took place in mid-May 1970. Wilcox was there, as were Maui Mayor Elmer Cravalho, Senate President David McClung and House Speaker Tadao Beppu, The Maui News reported on May 23, 1970. As bombs fell on Kaho‘olawe, Reverend John Kukahiko blessed the project. After attendees planted some trees with a gold-plated shovel, Maui County Councilman Richard Caldito proceeded to win a golf driving contest.
That little golf driving contest clearly reflected the developer’s construction priorities. Needing a quick source of cash, they set out to build Wailea’s Blue Course first. “Of necessity, construction will come in phases,” an A&B representative said in the Mar. 9, 1971 Maui News. “[T]he first being the golf course and clubhouse scheduled for completion this fall.” After that would come the residential development– “including units for employees,” the A&B representative said, adding that they still considered their Wailea project to be a “mini city.”
“Wailea will not be the type of resort where you have hotel accommodations and golf but go elsewhere for fun,” the A&B rep said, ironically describing Wailea exactly as it exists today. “Wailea is planned to be an integral community with attractions and conveniences enjoyed by both tourists and local people.”
Here it is, nearly the spring of 1971, and A&B’s concept for Wailea still includes “housing for people working on the construction and service industries for the project.” It was a vision that even included a “living museum” of Hawaiian antiquities. Construction of the golf course was churning up a considerable number of ancient relics–so many that the Bishop Museum suggested Wailea include a museum.
“The most unusual artifact recovered from either site was the wooden handle of a shark tooth knife, surprisingly well preserved inspite [sic] of its location in an open site exposed to the elements,” The Maui News reported on July 15, 1970. “Bishop Museum archaeologists say that to their knowledge this is the first such specimen of a shark tooth implement, from an archaeological context.”
In short, the Wailea envisioned back in 1970, 1971 was a full-blown city, full of shops, restaurants, hotels, apartments and attractions, including a Hawaiian antiquities museum. The people who worked in said hotels, restaurants and attractions would also live there, and everyone would get around not by driving cars, but by walking or riding in public shuttles.
A&B–represented by former Maui Supervisor/future Maui Mayor Hannibal Tavares–sold Wailea to the Maui Planning Commission, which in the early 1970s approved the project 7-1 (Dick Mayer provided the only no vote because too many units were being proposed). “I got a concession from A&B on the setback from the ocean,” Mayer said. “But even then, A&B still said that one-third of the housing would be workforce housing. They used that term–‘workforce housing.’”
So what happened? Why can’t we head down to Wailea now and walk around this futuristic urban wonderland?
The answer lies in the recent Maui News article about the Keala O Wailea project. Put simply, landowners like A&B realized they could make a great deal more money simply catering to the rich, rather than by trying to build an entire community for everyone.
The Wailea Ekahi, Elua and Ekolu condos began opening in the mid-1970s. Demand was high, and prices shot up. “On April 15, 1978, some 1,200 buyers bid for 148 units to be constructed in the Wailea Ekolu Village in a frenzy similar to buying at Kaanapali and Kapalua,” Mansel Blackford noted in his 2001 book Fragile Paradise: The Impact of Tourism on Maui, 1959-2000.
What developer is going to ignore that? Or, as Don J. Hibbard put it in his 2006 book Designing Paradise: The Allure of the Hawaiian Resort, “The escalating returns on Wailea’s residential sales led to a scaling back on the number of units built, as higher quality was favored over density.”
So much for Wailea workers actually living in Wailea. And if that’s gone, it’s very easy to ditch the pedestrian-friendly streets and those tractor trains. And if cars are now welcome in Wailea, why bother putting in a bunch of “cultural attractions” like museums?
Of course, Grosvenor was long gone by the late 1970s, replaced by Belt, Collins & Associates, and they took their vision of a big Wailea city with them. All that remained was the land and a desire to maximize landowner and developer profits.
“The Belt, Collins & Associates master plan anticipated Wailea having a population of 9,000,” Hibbard wrote. “Thanks to the positive response to the more up-scale residential offerings and attendant scaling back of the resort, Wailea only had a population of a little over 5,000 in 2000.”
Because where land development on Maui is concerned, upscale beats local. It’s not even close, and it’s likely to get worse. Today Wailea is paradise for the rich, but it could have been a wonderful home for anyone, regardless of wealth. It’s something to think about the next time you read about more luxury condos or resorts getting built in Wailea.