Blessing celebrates realization of Ho‘opili housing development

Honolulu Star Advertiser - September 9, 2016
Andrew Gomes

Amid mounds of neatly compacted dirt next to a field of ripening cantaloupe, one of Hawaii’s largest homebuilders commemorated the end of an 11-year battle and the start of building the 11,750-home Ho‘opili community on Oahu’s Ewa Plain on Thursday.

Representatives of development firm D.R. Horton and local government leaders reflected on the tribulations surrounding the $4.6 billion project, which once failed to get past the state Land Use Commission and then endured court challenges. They celebrated persevering with a blessing on the site of the first 293 homes.

“It was a journey,” said Mike Jones, a Horton executive who led the company’s local Schuler Division during much of the project’s regulatory gauntlet. “It was a battle.”

Added Hawaii Sen. Mike Gabbard, who represents West Oahu, “What’s that song? ‘It’s Been a Long Time Coming.’ I know it’s been a bit of a roller coaster ride, but what would life be like without a few potholes?”

Horton expects to have the first batch of homes rising in November and to finish them next summer. Some commercial space and a 1.8-acre neighborhood park with playground equipment and a gathering pavilion are also part of the first phase covering roughly 50 acres at the bottom western corner of Ho‘opili’s 1,554-acre site.

Work on a second phase a bit more mauka and next to a planned city rail station is slated to start construction next year and include more homes and commercial space.

Under an agreement with the city, 30 percent of Ho‘opili housing must be affordable to local households with low to moderate incomes. Prices for initial homes are expected to range from the $300,000s to the $600,000s. Sales efforts should start early next year.

If built out as envisioned, Ho‘opili will have 11,750 homes, 3 million square feet of commercial space, five schools and 200 acres of farmland. Full build-out is expected to take more than 20 years, during which time farming that exists today on about 1,400 acres will gradually be displaced.

Jones said the community will be one in which kids can walk or bike to school, get a college degree at the nearby University of Hawaii West Oahu, go to work, grow old and retire. Residents also will be able to conveniently ride the city’s rail line into town.

Jim Schuler, the retired founder of Schuler Homes who sold his Hawaii company to Texas-based Horton in 2002, said Ho‘opili — which means “to come together” — will be a catalyst to bring the “Second City” of Kapolei together with the “First City” of Honolulu.

“It brings it all together,” he said.

Schuler said he was honored to be at the blessing given that Ho‘opili to some degree was his vision. “I had a dream a long time ago for this project,” he said, recalling that he contracted to buy about 800 acres of the site from Campbell Estate in 1994 or 1995 but then canceled the purchase in 1996 because of a weakening local housing market and economy. The purchase was revived and then canceled again for the same reason a few years later.

When Schuler folded his company into Horton in 2002, that provided the financial stamina to buy the bigger site and push ahead with planning and development. “It provided us with the opportunity — the pocketbook, so to speak — to acquire all of Ho‘opili, all 1,500 acres.”

Horton bought the Ho‘opili site in 2006 for $71 million and began conceptual planning that attracted fierce detractors even though the city had designated the former sugar cane fields for urban growth more than three decades ago.

The developer applied to the state Land Use Commission in 2009 to reclassify the site from agricultural use to urban use, which drew opposition from some community groups and individuals who said the prime farmland — largely leased to major local vegetable producer Aloun Farms — should be preserved.

In 2012 the LUC ruled, after lengthy public hearings, that Horton’s proposal was deficient because Ho‘opili wasn’t broken into phases. Two years later the developer returned to the commission with a redesigned project that included “urban farms” on 16 percent of the property, including 159 acres for commercial farms, 84 acres for home gardens and 8 acres for community gardens.

Horton obtained LUC approval in 2014 despite arguments and expert witnesses from the Sierra Club Hawaii Chapter, then-state Sen. Clayton Hee and community group Friends of Makakilo.

The Sierra Club and Hee appealed the decision in court, and the Hawaii Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of Horton last year after the city granted zoning approvals.

Ho‘opili is the biggest project for Horton’s Schuler Division and its predecessor that built nearly 15,000 homes in Hawaii over the last 45 years.

“Right here in this spot we will nearly (match) that number,” said Bob Bruhl, Horton’s Schuler Division president.

“It’s a big day not only for our company,” added Cameron Nekota, a Horton vice president heading up Ho‘opili, “but also the state of Hawaii and the island of Oahu.”

Gov. David Ige thanked Horton officials for their patience and perseverance to produce more homes at a time when supply isn’t keeping pace with demand.

“Housing is one of the biggest challenges that faces our community,” he said. “Having housing for our residents is something that we are continuously working on, and I’m so excited to be here at the groundbreaking for Ho‘opili, a project a long time in coming.”

Mayor Kirk Caldwell said it could be 24,000 to 48,000 people who ultimately make Ho‘opili their home and obtain a quality of life that includes being close to rail and walking to work. “This is about living better,” he said. “It’s not about the houses; it’s about the people.”