Local Businessman Duane Kurisu Envisions a Plantation-style Community with Plantation-era Values
Gregg K. Kakesako
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Late last month, 24 prefabricated steel-framed boxes that had been manufactured by a Japanese company as emergency homes for victims of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Fukushima arrived in the Islands to become part of a community effort to combat the complex and challenging problem of housing O‘ahu’s growing homeless population. The effort — really an experiment — is the vision of commercial real estate investor Duane Kurisu, who also owns locally produced magazines, local sports radio station ESPN 1420 and is a part-owner of the San Francisco Giants baseball team, among other business ventures.
For most of this year, however, Kurisu has been busy assembling a team of some 40 companies and organizations to build what Kurisu has named “Kahauiki Village,” an innovative, energy efficient plantation-style community for homeless individuals and families. The village will be situated on a slip of land sandwiched between Sand Island and Ke‘ehi Lagoon, on the makai (oceanside) side of Nimitz Highway. According to “Place Names of Hawaii” by Mary Kawena Pukui, Samuel H. Elbert and Esther T. Mookini, the area was once abundant with kalo (taro) terraces.
Today, the military, construction and building industry-related companies, human service agencies and individuals are coming together to build Kahauiki Village.
Duane Kurisu does not believe that shelters are the solution to O‘ahu’s homeless crisis. His approach is to offer homeless families a community setting similar to the one in which he was raised on the Big Island of Hawai‘i.
Kahauiki Village is named for the ahupua‘a (Hawaiian land division extending from the uplands to the sea) in which the village is located. It will include a daycare center, a preschool, small convenience store, coin-operated laundromat, a small office for police officers and an administration building.
Solar photovoltaic panels with a battery storage system will supply electricity to the residential units. The community buildings (day care center, laundromat, etc.) will be connected to Hawaiian Electric Co.’s grid. InSynergy Engineering designed the photovoltaic system, which, in combination with gas, will fuel the village’s energy needs. Organizers say the fully built-out project of 153 homes and associated buildings will contain 1,392 photovoltaic modules producing 494.16 kilowatts using 252 solar thermal collectors.
The city is spending $4 million to install water and sewer lines for the project.
Kurisu, whose nonprofit aio Foundation is coordinating Kahauiki Village, envisions building 153 prefab modular homes that will house 300 families.
The Hawai‘i Statewide Homeless Point-In-Time Count conducted last Jan. 22 counted 7,220 persons as homeless — 4,959 on O‘ahu alone. The study found that the number of homeless not housed in shelters increased 7 percent over 2016 and that the numbers had continued to rise every year for the last five years. The sheltered component decreased 5 percent from 2016 and has declined in each of the last five years.
Retired Hawai‘i hotel executive Melvin Kaneshige is serving as project developer for Kahauiki Village. He said the goal of the project is to house 284 families, or about 1,193 individuals (including 680 children) who are currently in transitional housing.
“Kahauiki Village will have 153 families, or 54 percent of families, in transitional housing,” Kaneshige said.
The village is being built in six phases. Although groundbreaking of the site was held in July, construction of Phase One actually began in March where the Maunalua and Kalihi streams merge into Ke‘ehi Lagoon. Kurisu is hoping that the first 30 families will be able to move into the 18 two-bedroom homes, each 540 square feet, and six one-bedroom units by Christmas. The one-bedroom units will be 324-square foot duplexes.
FROM WASTELAND TO FIELD OF DREAMS
With each passing day, Kahauiki Village is taking shape on the once-desolate parcel of reclaimed land. At one time, about 250 homeless people lived in the area in makeshift houseboats and other structures. The site was also home to a paintball course whose operators were told to find another location by year’s end. According to Kurisu, police and firefighters were routinely called to extinguish small fires and make arrests for gambling and violent outbursts. With assistance from the state, they were evicted from the site, and Kurisu has hired private security to police the area.
The 11.3-acre parcel was previously owned by the state. Ownership was transferred to the city and then leased to Kurisu’s aio Foundation, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, for $1 a year for 10 years with an option to renew for another 10 years.
Each of the 30 housing units in Phase One will have its own kitchen and bathroom. Equipping the kitchens is expected to cost about $34,500.
Servco Home and Commercial Products is donating the refrigerators, gas ranges and range hoods for the first 30 homes, said company president Craig Washofsky. Servco will then sell the appliances for the remainder of the units at a significantly reduced price.
Kurisu expects the operating costs — water, electricity and gas power, plus a fund for repairs and maintenance — to all be covered by the $900 per month rental fee for the two-bedroom units and the $750 for the one-bedroom units.
Kahauiki Village will be managed jointly by Newmark Grubb, a commercial real estate company, and the Institute for Human Services, whose staff will screen the applicants. Families must go through transitional facilities at social services agencies such as the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities and IHS before being eligible to apply as a tenant at Kahauiki Village.
Servco’s Washofsky said he has been with the Building Industry Association for many years and served as its 2016 president. “That work, coupled with my volunteer activities with Family Promise, helped me understand the need to increase the amount of housing at all price points,” he said. “Kahauiki Village looks to be a great way to demonstrate how a public-private partnership can begin to address one part of the problem,” Washofsky added.
As Kurisu sees it, “The cost for the prefab units turns out to be almost irrelevant because we are building our own foundation, building new trusses, putting on a new roof and installing new doors, hardware, our own plumbing for new bathrooms and kitchens, and our own power and fixtures.” He noted that “with the exception of volunteers from the U.S. Navy and Hawai‘i National Guard, we are using union labor.”
PAST INSPIRES THE FUTURE
Duane Kurisu was born and raised in the sugar plantation community of Hakalau on the Big Island’s Hämäkua coast. His upbringing in the 1950s and ’60s were his inspiration for Kahauiki Village, which is designed to provide homeless families with stability, resources and a network of support.
“In plantation towns like Hakalau, the homes that we lived in may have looked like they were ready to fall down, but the warmth of family and community allowed us to live with dignity,” emphasizes the 63-year-old Kurisu, a sansei who graduated from Hilo High School in 1972 and went on to earn both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. “Back when Hakalau was a bustling town, we had our own movie theatre, country store, post office, gymnasium, our own schools and churches of all denominations and community gardens. All of our basic needs were taken care of.
“The plantation style of growing up shaped what it is to be ‘local’ in the way we see things and in the way we act,” Kurisu added. He envisions Kahauiki Village as not just a shelter, but as a means of “building community.”
“It has to succeed, so that future generations can continue to celebrate what it is to be local,” Kurisu said.
To give the units the look and feel of old-time plantation homes, project architect Lloyd Sueda decided to add wood trusses and corrugated roofs to the structures. Sueda, who has designed several projects for The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, was one of the founders of the aio Foundation.
The foundation project team also includes retired housing official Gordon Furutani and insurance executive Scott Kuioka.
Kurisu said he first envisioned Kahauiki Village at the Ke‘ehi Lagoon site when he was forced to relocate the broadcast antenna for his radio station, ESPN 1420, because it stood in the path of Honolulu’s planned elevated rail transit line. Relocation of the antenna is a separate matter with the state and is not part of aio Foundation’s lease for Kahauiki Village, Kurisu noted.
“The property had a number of things going for it for the kind of development we were thinking about and it also had a number of negatives,” Kurisu said.
“Despite the issues with the existing zoning of the site, the perceived problems with the condition of the soil and a number of other issues which would be large impediments to developing the property, we forged ahead with that property because, except for frontage on Nimitz Highway, the property is surrounded by water. We felt there would be the least amount of ‘not in my backyard’ kind of comments in building a homeless village there, because there were not residential neighbors.”
The project also gained the early support of former first lady Vicky Cayetano, president of United Laundry Services and the wife of former Hawai‘i Gov. Ben Cayetano. She committed to offering jobs to homeless adults looking for work. The full-time jobs at United Laundry will provide benefits and serve as an entry point into the labor force.
“Her United Laundry facility is located only a few minutes walk away from our proposed Kahauiki Village,” Kurisu said. “Employment is a vital part of our model in building a community, so despite so many obstacles that we were faced with in developing the property, we were steadfast in our desire and commitment to build on that property.”
Kurisu said Cayetano’s pledge “to hire any or all homeless people who were willing to work for her company” was crucial when he began planning the project two years ago. “Employment is the core of the project,” he said.
MANY HANDS, ONE GOAL
As Kurisu researched low-cost alternatives to building structures from the ground up, he looked across the Pacific to Japan, where Komatsu (now known as System House) had built 5,000 modular homes for victims of the 2011 Töhoku disaster. Kurisu was familiar with the structures because aio Foundation had raised more than $1 million for the victims of the disaster.
The foundation purchased two of the homes, dismantled them and shipped them to Hawai‘i. They then reassembled them at the city’s homeless site on Sand Island. After trying out different modifications on the structures, Kurisu donated the modular homes to the city. He then purchased the 24 prefabricated homes from System House — they arrived in Honolulu on Sept. 24. Those homes are being modified by crews from Coastal Construction Co., Inc.
Kurisu declined to disclose the cost of the reconditioned homes coming from Japan, saying it would give the public “a skewed view of its true cost.”
“For example, we are not purchasing the support beams for the roof, and the roof, because we are modifying the homes to have a more plantation feel, and we are not buying the wooden floor and post-and-pier (foundations) because we are pouring a concrete floor instead. We are also not purchasing some other things, like the front door, because the height of the door does not meet code and the lock mechanism is not U.S. standard.”
The seven containers left the port of Yokohama, stopping in Shanghai, China, and then Long Beach, Calif., before finally docking in Honolulu on Sept. 24, courtesy of Pasha Hawaii. Pacific Transfer transported the containers to Ke‘ehi Lagoon.
Work on the project began in earnest this past March when crews from Russell Yamamoto’s RMY Construction began preparing the site, hauling in 7,000 tons of fill material to raise the ground by nearly five feet to ensure that it was out of the flood zone. In July, Yamamoto’s crew began preparing the pads, the foundation for the 30 building units. Yamamoto’s company also installed the main water, gas and electrical and sewer lines, fire hydrants and paved roads for the project. According to Yamamoto, HC&D donated 240 yards of concrete for the foundations.
Assisting the crew in August were 20 Hawai‘i Army National Guard soldiers and Navy sailors from Pearl Harbor. The soldiers from the National Guard’s engineer battalion were on state active duty.
Commercial Plumbing Inc. president Randy Hiraki donated the labor of 40 of his workers who installed the underground piping and water and gas lines for each of the 30 individual housing units and support facilities. Hiraki said his company is also installing all of the plumbing fixtures, which are being donated by Ferguson Plumbing Supplies. He added that his 30-year-old company is committed to helping solve the homeless situation, which he described as ‘a crisis.’”
Additionally, John Dean, chairman of Central Pacific Bank, personally donated the supplies and materials to build the six-foot-high, 600-foot-long wall that will run along busy Nimitz Highway, shielding the village from the highway.
PIECES BECOMING HOMES
Under warm blue September skies, carpenters from Coastal Construction recently began reassembling the steel girders that make up the units’ supporting structures and gently sliding the homes’ metal walls into place. The carpenters spent about two days assembling each unit.
The workers in Japan had cleaned each panel before loading them into the shipping containers for the journey to Hawai‘i, making the walls looked like they were brand new.
Coastal Construction’s assistant project manager Kaz Masutani explained that Coastal is modifying the modular homes by building plantation style roofs. The company is also supplying the lumber, drywall, windows and cabinets. Masutani estimated that 10 to 12 carpenters will be working on the project over the next three months. The carpenters are donating their weekends to the project and Kurisu is providing the bentö lunches.
Masutani said Kurisu approached Coastal about a year ago, asking for their support with the carpentry work. “Working with his staff has been very encouraging,” she said. “Not only has he gotten both public and private sectors working together, he actually has everyone going out of their way to help each other, while remaining humble.”
Masutani said that Coastal decided to get involved in the Kahauiki Village project “in spite of all the ups and downs in the construction industry over many years.” “Being involved with Kahauiki Village gives us the opportunity to give back to the community by providing housing to the homeless,” she said.
Kurisu said Gov. David Ige’s 2015 emergency proclamation to address the homeless situation by increasing funding for housing programs and exempting government agencies from permitting and entitlement requirements was critical in moving the project along after he got Mayor Kirk Caldwell to join the effort.
“Without it, our engineers and architects would still be working on permits,” Kurisu said. “While we didn’t have to, we still went through the process to do all the things we needed to do in order to get permits for the sake of transparency, especially because we were the only nongovernment project that qualified under the proclamation. “We want to make sure that, as much as possible, we set the right kind of precedence to make things easier for other people in the future.”
As for reaching his goal of building homes for 1,193 adults and children, Kurisu said, “We expect that to occur when all the homes we anticipate building are completed. We hope to start the remaining phases some time in 2018; however, we are adamant that we will not start any new homes until we feel that the community that we expect to build with the families living in Phase One is alive and working.”
I MUA! MOVING FORWARD TOWARD THE DREAM
Excitement and optimism flow through Duane Kurisu’s entire body as the UH MBA, dressed in a long-sleeved T-shirt and faded jeans, joins Russell Yamamoto’s crew preparing cement pads on a Saturday morning in July. It is still morning, but the sun is already beating down on the workers. While most people only see 11 acres of dirt, Kurisu sees a community, a place where people who were once without homes are now at home in Kahauiki Village, where the future looks bright. It takes Kurisu back home to Hakalau.
“We did not have to venture far off from the confines of where we lived. We all may not have had much money,” he says. But, “home and our community was comfortable and safe. It was a time that was, a time when values and integrity counted most, and a time that could be again.”
Gregg Kakesako worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Gannett News Service and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser for more than four decades as a government, political and military affairs reporter and assistant city editor.