It's become a familiar sight: glossy renderings from big-name architects promoting new luxury condo towers. But in this case the setting is unexpected, rather than New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, these new towers are cropping up in a gentrifying area of Honolulu known as Kaka'ako, nestled between the resorts of Waikiki, and the Downtown business district. For its latest offering, Ward Village, one part of a massive redevelopment plan for the entire Kaka'ako neighborhood, has enlisted Prizker Prize-winner Richard Meier, and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (best known for the Fifth Avenue Apple Store in New York), to design iconic towers that will no doubt attract premium prices to match their architects' celebrity cachet. And while most people celebrate the influx of new housing units in a region of limited supply, some may be wondering who these new condos are really for.
Ward Village, developed by the Howard Hughes Corporation, is just one piece of the massive two-decade long redevelopment of the Kaka'ako neighborhood, and many welcome the added density in this previously low-rise section of Honolulu, rather than sprawling farther into O’ahu's natural landscape. Some estimates suggest that the city will need approximately 4,000 new housing units per year to keep up with population growth, more than double the number of units built per year over the last five years. Ward Village alone will include 4,000 units when all phases are completed, as well as new ground level retail spaces, which the developers have suggested will accommodate the neighborhood's existing local businesses and artisan shops, as well as national chains such as a much anticipated Whole Foods Market. The location near the under-construction Honolulu Rail Transit project also provides an alternative to the city’s notorious traffic.
But the development has not been without controversy. Previous efforts at redevelopment in the Ward Village area were repeatedly delayed in 2007 due to the discovery of native Hawaiian burial sites, a problem further exacerbated by reports that the State Historic Preservation Division was not properly investigating and protecting these archaeological sites. Eight years later, after the global financial crisis, and with a new developer at the helm, the archaeological concerns seem to have subsided. A promotional video from the developer includes the Chair of the O’ahu Island Burial Council testifying to the sensitivity and community engagement of the developers at the site.
Today, concerns about the development are focused on the living, and whether all these new condo units will serve Hawaiians who need places to live, rather than out-of-state or international investors. The Hawaii Community Development Authority (HCDA), the agency overseeing the redevelopment of Kaka’ako, requires all developers to provide at least 20% "reserve housing," defined as affordable for families making 100% of the area median income for rentals, or 140% for purchase. But a 2014 study for the City and County of Honolulu found that 75% of housing demand in the coming years will be from "low income" families, making 80% or less of the area mean income, well below the level of the reserve units required by HCDA. To address this demand, Ward Village is including 375 reserve units in the Ke Kilohana tower as part of the initial phase of development.
This pressing need for affordable housing is exemplified the homeless encampments that have sprung up along the Kaka'ako waterfront. The city has made repeated efforts to clear out the encampments in the area, and though these sweeps are not directly related to the new development the sight of the tent cities in the shadow of the luxury towers is striking. Still, outside investors have long been a factor in Hawai’i real estate, and with “nearly 30% of all condominium units owned by people from outside the state of Hawai’i,” Ward Village is hardly unique in contributing to these issues. As one article on the developments at Kaka’ako put it, “we can’t blame the tiger for having stripes.”
Putting those concerns aside, what sets Ward Village apart from the other developers in Kaka’ako is a focus on signature architecture, reflecting recent trends in other major urban centers. The highlights of the 60-acre development will be the luxury condo towers, completed in two phases. The two Phase One towers, "Waiea" by James KM Cheng Architects and WCIT Architecture, and "Anaha" by Solomon Cordwell Buenz in partnership with Benjamin Woo Architects, broke ground in 2014, and though not yet complete most of the condos have already sold. The first phase also includes Ke Kilohana, by AC Martin and CDS International. Phase Two will consist of three more buildings, a duo by Richard Meier & Partners called the "Gateway Towers," and "Ae’o" by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson.
Ke Kilohana / AC Martin + CDS International
Taking its name from one of the highest peaks in O'ahu, Ke Kilohana, which translates to "look ahead," was inspired by the Hawaiian legend of Keaomelemele, a goddess who lived among the clouds. Designed by AC Martin and CDS International, the 45 story tower includes 375 reserve housing units, and 49 market rate units. The L-shaped plan of the building provides multiple view angles, while the variegated facade of gray and yellow rectangles animates the large surfaces. Protruding volumes, outlined in bright yellow panels, punctuate the height of the tower, one of which is occupied by an outdoor space dubbed the "sky lanai."
Waiea / James KM Cheng Architects + WCIT Architecture
Inspired by the fresh water fish pools and natural springs that used to be found in Kaka’ako, "Waiea," which translates to “water of life,” is dominated by an undulating glass façade, seemingly unbroken by mullions, evoking the rolling waves of the open ocean. Promotional renderings imply that the glazing will reflect the surrounding landscape, minimizing the impact on the skyline, while the ocean-facing facades are dominated by protruding balconies.
Anaha / Solomon Cordwell Buenz + Benjamin Woo Architects
Similarly, "Ahana," meaning “reflection of light,” references light reflecting off ocean waves with its waving façade, designed by Solomon Cordwell Buenz in partnership with Benjamin Woo Architects. But in contrast to the pristine glazing of Waiea, at Ahana the tower is broken into segments, with the wave pattern of the floor plate shifting between two different floor plate patterns every four floors. Both towers rise from low-rise blocks with sharply-defined rectilinear expressions of floor plates and walls that extend beyond the building envelope, lending a more human scale to the streetscape.
Ae’o / Bohlin Cywinski Jackson + Architects Hawaii LTD
"Ae’o," designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson with Architects Hawaii LTD, is named after the Hawaiian stilt bird. The long, thin glass tower reflects the design firm’s typical subtle, refined detailing, with small angled protrusions that extend beyond the long sides of the building to maximize views to the ocean. The base of the building will also contain the long-anticipated Whole Foods, as well as a variety of other local retailers.
Gateway Towers / Richard Meier & Partners + Architects Hawaii LTD
The centerpiece of Ward Village will be the "Gateway Towers," designed by Richard Meier & Partners, also with Architects Hawaii LTD. Separated by a small park space, the two towers create a symbolic entryway, connecting the Kewalo Harbor to the rest of the Ward Village development. Rather than mirroring each other, the towers take contrasting forms. One is a gently curving cylinder, while the other is rectilinear, but both utilize Meier’s signature white structural elements, combined with clear glass, creating a visual unity between the two buildings.
Correction update: This article has been updated from its original version to include additional details about the Ke Kilohana tower, and its 375 reserve housing units. In addition, information about the involvement of Architects Hawaii LTD in the design of the Ae'o and Gateway Towers designs was added.