Hawaii schools to face off in urban planning challenge
A real estate firm has proposed to redevelop several city-owned blocks in the urban core with homes, park space and businesses including Trader Joe’s, Maui Brewing Co., Apple, Nobu and Uniqlo.
The revitalization plan, which includes a homeless shelter and would improve city finances, isn’t really being proposed to the City and County of Honolulu. But it stems from a program having a real impact on Oahu.
Six students at ‘Iolani School produced the plan for the fictional City Council of “Yorktown” as part of an urban planning course being taught in three Oahu high schools where student teams devise and present their plans to local real estate industry professionals playing the role of council members tasked with picking a winning plan.
The course, Urban Plan, poses real-world challenges relevant in Honolulu to students who could one day be future land planners, financial analysts or even City Council members tasked with making difficult decisions that shape local communities.
“Urban Plan is a civics class that teaches kids about the choices that are made as the built environment is improved,” said Jon Wallenstrom, a Hawaii developer and program organizer.
The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Urban Land Institute underwrites the program and offers versions for high schools, universities and even public officials.
‘Iolani, Kalani and Punahou are teaching the course this year, though Urban Plan has been taught at other schools, including Kaimuki High School and Maryknoll, over the last 20 years or so.
This year for the first time, winning teams from each school will face off against each other before another panel Saturday. And there are discussions of having next year’s winning school team compete against a winning team among three New York City schools teaching the course, perhaps with an initial trip for Honolulu’s team to the Big Apple for such an event.
‘Iolani teacher Lance Suzuki, who has taught the course for five years as part of his advanced placement economics class for seniors, said the competition aspect is exciting, though what students get out of devising plans and making presentations is most important.
“It gives students the opportunity to go beyond the textbook, beyond the curriculum, and they have to see the real-world implications of the theories that we talk about in class, and they also have to use real-world skills — collaboration and presenting to people,” he said.
The three-week course is structured as though each team is responding to a request for proposals from the city to redevelop six blocks in a blighted neighborhood.
City objectives include tax revenue, job creation and public benefits. There are also community groups pushing competing interests. Teams wrestle with issues that include traffic, parking, affordable housing, homelessness, view planes, development costs and profit. Formulating their plan involves modeling with Lego blocks and spreadsheet analyses.
Real estate professionals volunteer time, first posing as facilitators helping students understand the material and then later as council members picking a winning plan.
Mike Zane, a Kalani teacher who uses Urban Plan in an economics class for seniors and some juniors, said presenting plans to professionals enhances problem solving and project-based learning for the students.
“Their performance elevates because they are performing in front of adults rather than in front of their peers,” he said.
Members of Kalani’s winning team said they had to make hard choices that included providing less affordable housing than the city desired in order to provide a big central park that they felt made the community better.
“We had to sacrifice a lot of affordable housing to create the park,” said Nathan Roberts, who was the team’s liaison to city officials.
Andrew Gresham, the team’s financial analyst, said the “Yorktown” city panel aggressively questioned his team’s choices. “We kind of refused to back down,” he said. “We defended the park.”
At ‘Iolani several students said the challenge was stressful, especially at first.
“It was kind of scary,” said Julianne Guo, who was the financial analyst on an ‘Iolani team called Lance Enhance Inc.
Kylie Carpenter, site planner for the same team, added, “The main question we asked was, Would you live here?”
About 100 ‘Iolani students participated in Urban Plan this year on 18 teams.
In one recent class three teams presented proposals to a pretend city council represented by local architect Chris Hong, G70 planner Tracy Camuso, Kamehameha Schools Planning and Development Director Cathy Camp and retired planning consultant Ralph Portmore, who is also a former city deputy chief planner.
The “Green Team” offered the plan that included Trader Joe’s. Panelists challenged team members on issues that included 400 neighborhood residents opposing the retention of a homeless shelter, the aesthetics of a parking garage along one street and why a higher-value use wasn’t put on the prime corner of the redevelopment area.
“I’m a little perplexed as to why you have the least financially rewarding use, namely townhouses, on the front lawn,” Portmore said.
Green Team members defended their choices, but Lance Enhance prevailed.
Panelists praised the teams for working together, making hard choices that didn’t satisfy all stakeholders and thinking on their feet during questioning.
“I know it challenged you,” Portmore said. “I hope it didn’t overwhelm you. I hope you learned a lot. … It’s very real-world.”