Roads in Limbo: Who Owns The Streets in Kakaako?

Mar 16, 2016

Credit Molly Solomon

With several high-rise condominiums on the way, Kaka‘ako is a place in transition. As many as 30,000 new residents are expected to move in to the developing area over the next 15 years, with Honolulu’s rail project running right through the neighborhood. But there’s a problem with one basic piece of infrastructure: its roads. HPR’s Molly Solomon reports.

Bob Emami is the owner of The Car Store in Kakaako.
Credit Molly Solomon

Bob Emami is in front of his Kaka‘ako shop, showing me the condition of the road under our feet. “You see the kind of potholes here,” Emami said, pointing at a huge one in front of us. “Some of them are so deep and so large that when the cars pass through, you definitely know something happened to your car.”

Bob should know -- he’s in the automobile business. He owns The Car Store on Kawaiaha‘o Street. “These roads don’t even have a sidewalk,” he said. “The traffic is getting worse and more people are walking. It’s really a dangerous situation.”

Roads like Kawaiahao Street in Kakaako frequently have large potholes are no longer being maintained by the city and county of Honolulu.
Credit Molly Solomon

Kawaiaha‘o is one of several roads in Kaka‘ako that are in limbo due to a standoff with a private property owner, who claims ownership of these streets. “Who is responsible for this road,” asks Emami. “That’s the major question.”

The answer is not as simple as you’d think. And it begins more than a century ago. “The original developer was a guy named Charles Desky,” said attorney Michael Carroll. “He developed the area in the late 1800s.”

The Car Store owner Bob Emami shows me a map of Kakaako, with the private roads outlined in pink.
Credit Molly Solomon

Carroll is representing several small business owners who are seeking clarity on who owns these roads, which includes parts of Cooke, Waimanu and Queen Street. Carroll says in 1903, the original owner Charles Desky dedicated these roads to Hawai‘i’s Territorial legislature. “And he expressly granted to the territory at the time the use of those streets,” said Carroll. “However no one has been able to locate a deed from the 1900s.”

As a result, these roads were left in limbo, but were used by the public for more than a century. That is, until two brothers, Calvert and Cedric Chun, claim they purchased the land from Desky’s last surviving heir in 1985. “And what they did was they offered her $5,000 to sign off on a quitclaim deed for any property that she may own,” said Carroll. “She agreed to do so and the Chun brothers stayed quiet with respect to these properties for about 20 years.  They then started putting up signs and claiming ownership.”

Under the name Kaka‘ako Land Company, the Chun brothers began charging local business owners and residents to rent out stalls on the street. For some, that meant the parking fronting their own business.

“Over the past couple of years, the situation has gotten worst,” said House Majority Leader Scott Saiki, who represents Kaka‘ako. He says the issue of private roads in his district is a problem that needs to be resolved. “Because of the increased population in Kaka‘ako, this has become an important issue,” Saiki said. “Basic public safety is at stake.”

Saiki hopes legislation he introduced this session will help, including two bills that recently passed the House. The Honolulu City Council is also wrestling with what to do. Councilmember Carol Fukunaga formed a working group to examine the road ownership last fall, but has yet to release a final report.

And with a lawsuit still pending, it’s unclear who will take responsibility for the maintenance, upkeep and ultimately safety of these roads. That’s frustrating for small business owners in the area like Bob Emami. “We need them to make a move,” Emami said. “And if they don’t, we’ll just keep coming out and showing our frustration until somebody does something.”