(Source: Honolulu Star-Advertiser)
There’s a tree growing from inside a vacant building at 1615 Ala Wai Blvd.
The building looks out of place in the upwardly mobile stretch of Waikiki where it’s sandwiched between freshly renovated walk-ups and the Watermark, one of Oahu’s toniest condominiums.
It doesn’t seem fathomable that a building near the gateway into Waikiki would be in this condition for years. This particular unoccupied building, which has been vacant some 20 years, has a history of complaints with the city Department of Planning and Permitting going back more than a decade. There also have been numerous complaints to police about break-ins and drug use over the years.
According to public records, the 9,500-square-foot property is owned by Norman Nip, a small-business owner who was known for Nip’s Potato Chips Factory Inc., teacher Alvin Nip and their sister Donna Chang.
Norman Nip said the property is for sale but that he hasn’t listed it or settled on a price.
“I tell people, ‘You come up with a price.’ I’m a really old-fashioned Chinese guy,” Nip said, adding that he turned down previous offers of $3.2 million and $5.5 million from investors in the 1980s. “It has to be the right price and the right conditions. People come in and want to lease, too. There have been all kinds of ideas.”
But so far, none of these ideas has panned out. The family’s decision not to sell has left the building the only undeveloped three-story walk-up in a complex of five that were built seven or eight decades ago.
Roger Brewer, who recently bought a unit in one of the redeveloped walk-ups on the Ewa side of Waikiki at 1819 Lipeepee St., said he’s baffled as to why the building has been allowed to remain in its current condition, which has blighted an otherwise gentrifying neighborhood.
“The windows are broken and screens torn. The building is a hangout for local youth and gets tagged with graffiti on a regular basis. There’s even a tree growing from the roof,” Brewer said.
Andrea DeRosa, who also lives in a nearby walk-up, said police are called regularly to address safety issues at the property, which is a haven for abandoned junk and squatters.
“If you look in the windows, you can see junk up to the ceiling. People go in there regularly, and you can just imagine what’s going on in there — there are rats, human feces, you name it,” DeRosa said. “It’s hurting surrounding property values, but even worse, it’s just scary, like Freddy Krueger (a character from the horror film “A Nightmare on Elm Street”) scary.”
Nip said he’s reluctant to spend money on improvements when “after you paint it someone puts graffiti on it, and we have homeless people all around the place in Waikiki and all these problems.”
“The people next door say my place looks like a dump, and they are living in the area that they feel isn’t safe and they aren’t concerned to call the police. Why do I have to bend down and cater to their likes and needs because it doesn’t look up to their standards?”
Recently, neighbors have made plenty of calls to various agencies and officials. The Department of Planning and Permitting said it last investigated the property in June but found no cause to cite the owners of the building, which has a tax- assessed value of $275,000 and sits on land worth approximately $2.7 million.
Since 2008, DPP spokesman Curtis Lum said, the department had created 12 requests for investigations based on complaints about “overgrowth and litter on the property, graffiti, and the poor condition of the structure.”
Lum said the department issued five notices of violations in March 2008 and another one in September 2011. When the issues weren’t corrected, the department issued two notices in November 2008 and a second in October 2011.
“A total of $577.50 in fines were paid. All of the violations have been corrected and closed. There are no open investigations as of this date,” Lum said.
Watermark General Manager Michael Baker questioned why the city doesn’t have an open investigation at 1615 Ala Wai given that he and others near the building view it as an eyesore as well as a safety and hygiene hazard.
“At one point, early in my life, this part of Waikiki wasn’t the most desirable community. But I like to think that our building has turned that around, along with the Allure, and made the community much better,” Baker said. “When you walk into our place, it’s like a resort. But that vacant building is all but condemned. We’ve complained, but everyone’s hands seem to be tied.”
Kim Hadden, president of the Watermark Association of Apartment Owners, said she and others living near the vacant building want to see it renovated and brought up to neighborhood standards.
“It truly is a blight on the neighborhood. It’s a fire hazard, and it doesn’t necessarily feel safe for people who are walking by on the street since they don’t know what is inside,” Hadden said. “Our board has complained in the past to various officials with our concerns.”
Brewer recently reached out to Waikiki Neighborhood Board Chairman Bob Finley, who said the building’s complaint history with the city is unacceptable and the fines haven’t been harsh enough. Finley said he has asked the Waikiki Neighborhood Board’s mayor’s representative, Mark Yonamine, to forward this concern to the appropriate city department.
“It is extremely difficult to dictate to a property owner to demo or sell his or her property, and I have no idea if this building site is in a trust or what legal issues are involved,” Finley said. “It would be good if the city could find a way to encourage the owners to take action.”
Finley said he also plans to discuss the building’s condition with City Council member Tommy Waters (D, Waikiki) this week. Finley said he’ll suggest that Waters explore a suggestion from Waikiki Neighborhood Board member Jeff Merz to consider passing laws to place higher tax rates on vacant buildings.
Merz, an urban planner, said Belltown, a neighborhood in Seattle, successfully encouraged gentrification and redevelopment when it levied higher taxes on unoccupied properties.
“When faced with higher taxes, people who were land banking in the Belltown were more apt to sell, renovate or build — this way the city encouraged urban infill rather than sprawl,” Merz said.
Brewer said he’s hopeful that Bill 7, which Mayor Kirk Caldwell signed into law in May, could spur redevelopment of the parcel into affordable walk-up apartments. The bill creates a five-year pilot program that allows developers of small, affordable apartment buildings on lots of 20,000 square feet or less higher density and smaller setbacks under certain conditions.
He’d also like the city to consider taking a chapter from Detroit’s program for dealing with abandoned and vacant buildings, which requires owners to register vacant buddings that have been empty for 30 days and then enforces strict upkeep requirements.
Detroit’s program also comes with the “legal right to tag a building that is not adequately maintained as ‘dangerous’ and have it demolished — without getting permission from the owner,” Brewer said.
While some favor implementing legislative solutions, Hadden said that might prove cumbersome, and she wants relief now.
Before creating new laws, Hadden said she’d like officials to “make every effort to enforce existing codes and laws.”