(Star Advertiser) Editorial: Put vacant tower to residential use

(Source: Honolulu Star-Advertiser)

  • BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    The Queen Emma building, right, abandoned 12-story office building at 1254 Queen Emma St.

Adaptive reuse is a concept whose time has come. And it’s encouraging to see that its time has come for Queen Emma Tower, a long-abandoned commercial building that, in about a year, could have new life, offering affordable residential units in downtown Honolulu.

30 studio Queen Emma LLC is a development group now seeking City Council clearance for exemptions to certain housing requirements in order to make the 12-story building conversion financially feasible.

The project would yield a total of 71 rental units affordable to those earning no more than 60% of the city’s area median income (AMI). Among these, four units — one two-bedroom and three studios — will be offered at rents affordable to those earning at the 30% AMI level.

These are categories in which the housing shortage is especially acute, fueling Honolulu’s persistent homelessness crisis.

The development group includes the nonprofit Affordable Housing and Economic Development Foundation, which is applying for publicly supported financing and has committed to keeping rents at that affordability level for at least 61 years.

Pending city approval and securing that financing — hurdles that it should be allowed to clear — the group has estimated that renovations for the conversion would take nine to 12 months.

That would be a quick turnaround time, an appealing feature of the adaptive reuse of suitable buildings.

That surely factored into the project’s initial approval on July 24 by a key committee of the Honolulu City Council. Councilman Ron Menor, who chairs the Zoning, Planning and Housing Committee, said the testimony was positive.

That said, final approval will require certain concessions by the city. These include fees and charges that, if waived, would save the project almost $2 million. Among them are fees for the review of the building permit and fire plans; grading, grubbing and stockpiling; park dedication; wastewater system facility; storm drain connection; and building and construction permits.

These are not to be waived lightly, as such fees help to cover legitimate costs and community improvements. And in particular, the Honolulu Board of Water Supply indicated that further review is needed to determine if the project meets a requirement to qualify for a fee waiver estimated at $93,011.

Also, the building will be served only by its original 15-stall parking lot. That sparked some opposition from businesses concerned about impact on limited neighborhood parking.

However, Queen Emma Tower is centrally located and near public transportation, making it a strong candidate for the waiver from parking requirements. Prospective tenants should not expect a parking stall. And the continued development of planned bike lanes in the area must proceed in order to support such urban developments.

In the final analysis, the Council should find that the value of the project — reclamation of an aging structure that now blights the community, as well as needed housing — weighs heavily in its favor.

The city is pursuing its own adaptive opportunities, such as a converted commercial building at 1902 Young St., and an adapted school dormitory at 1936 Citron St.

It’s a national trend: When the recession drove more companies to smaller spaces, many commercial properties were left empty.

With careful evaluation, legacy buildings that add architectural interest can be restored. They also can become valuable residential inventory, rather than wasted space.

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