© 2023 Hawaiʻi Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

City Council bill hopes to ease some rules for converting offices to residential

Fort Street Mall in Honolulu.
Catherine Cruz
Fort Street Mall in Honolulu.

The upcoming closure of Walmart on King Street in downtown Honolulu marks the loss of another grocery store and pharmacy in an area trying to draw more families and working professionals.

Honolulu Councilmember Tyler Dos Santos-Tam said he talked to Walmart and asked to meet with the realtors about what they're planning for the building, whether that's subdividing or leasing the space. It's set to close on April 21.

"For me, having a giant, dark, hulking shell is unacceptable on Fort Street Mall, on King Street, which is a major thoroughfare. It's also just unacceptable for Fort Street Mall to be completely dead after 4 p.m. after everyone in the office buildings go home," he told The Conversation.

"We want more residents there to activate the spaces. But without active spaces, we're not going to attract families and other folks to live in our downtown core, which is why I think the prospect of converting our empty office buildings or maybe parts of office buildings to residential is really a key component of this," he said.

Developers like Douglas Emmett and the Avalon Group are in the process or almost done turning office towers into residential buildings along Bishop Street. Dos Santos-Tam acknowledged their frustrations with Oʻahu's "very restrictive policies."

He said one issue is a misalignment of building codes for commercial and residential developments, as well as differences between the city and the state.

"There are some things that are required in our housing code, as it stands right now, that go far above and beyond what's in the International Building Code that every other city across the country, New York, San Francisco, you name it, follows," he said.

Dos Santos-Tam introduced Bill 21 earlier this month, which would ease some lighting and ventilation requirements for projects that otherwise follow the International Building Code.

"There are other provisions in our housing code that we're hoping to look at later this year," Dos Santos-Tam said. "Does it serve the public good, especially given our enormous housing challenge?"

He said the goal is to spur a faster revitalization of downtown Honolulu — creating more affordable housing in the urban core.

"To the extent that the city can make things a little bit easier from the building code or housing code side to do an office-to-residential conversion. You know, we're here to support that," he told The Conversation.

This interview aired on The Conversation on March 24, 2023. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1. 

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
Sophia McCullough is a digital news producer. Contact her at news@hawaiipublicradio.org.
Related Stories