Honolulu rail route change may oust some Ualena Street shops
• Photo gallery: Rail route relocation
By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer
The scene is not the kind you'd put on a Hawai'i postcard, but the diamondhead end of Ualena Street offers the kind of odd array of businesses typical of a Honolulu industrial community.
A macadamia nut chocolate factory, an airplane parts inspection operation and a used car dealership are among the businesses standing along the mauka side of Ualena Street near the Honolulu International Airport.
The makai side includes a gas station, a fine wood products wholesale distributor, a plate lunch joint and a series of automotive repair shops.
All are wondering about their long-term fate following the city's announcement late this week that it intends to shift the routing of its $5.3 billion rail-transit project from Aolele Street one block mauka to Ualena as it heads diamondhead toward the Lagoon Drive intersection.
"We were told it wasn't going to affect us, that it was going to go behind us," said Gary Borseth, manager of Architectural Woods Inc.'s Honolulu branch.
Borseth said he signed a lease late last year that keeps him at the 15,000-square-foot warehouse until 2012.
Mayor Mufi Hannemann announced the change in routing on Thursday. The shift is necessary to address concerns raised that the four-story rail line would be too close to two airport runways if it continued too far along Aolele Street.
It also calls for moving a planned rail station from the Aolele-Lagoon Drive intersection to a corner of Ualena and Lagoon Drive.
The city said the switch would affect only six parcels owned by private property owners.
State Transportation Director Brennon Morioka yesterday confirmed that all but one parcel on the makai side of Ualena are owned and managed by DOT's Airports Division. Nearly all the leases run out in 2012, he said.
The city said the rail construction along Ualena Street won't occur until 2014, but business people in the area are already contemplating their future, even before they're told if they'll be forced to move out rail's way.
Borseth, who describes himself as a rail supporter, said he's excited for the transit project but does not relish the need to move.
"This is a very good area for business," he said, adding that the company would probably look to relocate in the same neighborhood.
"It's not an easy thing to move a business."
Most of the other businesses along the makai side of the street seemed resigned to leaving.
"If I gotta move, I gotta move. It's not like I've got a choice," said George Oshiro, president and owner of construction supply store Exacta Sales Inc.
The wholesaler that employs three people plus a volunteer moved onto Ualena Street in 1999. At 62, Oshiro said he's not in a position to retire.
Next door, Lim's Auto Repair owner Jong Lim is starting to think about what he's going to do. "What you gonna do? Nothing you can do," said Lim, who's been on Ualena the past five or six years.
Lim, 65, said by the time 2014 rolls around, "maybe I'll just close it up." Or he might offer up the business to a longtime employee, he said.
Brothers Bobby and Mel Miyano of B&B Auto recall when the state purchased all the land on the makai side of Ualena in the 1990s with the intention of expanding the airport.
So the Miyano brothers, who've been on a month-to-month lease like Oshiro and Lim, said they knew they'd have to leave their property at some point.
"If it happens, it happens," Mel Miyano, 57, said.
"It's not like we can say anything to buck this thing," said Bobby Miyano, 62.
On the mauka side, Val Cisneros' Elite Auto Group occupies one corner at the Lagoon Drive intersection.
Cisneros took over the property 2 1/4 years ago, transforming the 20,000-square-foot former Malolo Beverages warehouse into a "one-stop shop" used car dealership that also does repairs, detailing and accessory installation.
"I put a lot in there, a lot of sweat ... and money," Cisneros said.
"It's the perfect area, we service a lot of the other companies around here and a lot of the workers drop their cars off and pick them up after work."
Macadamia nut chocolate manufacturer Island Princess has its factory, warehouse, distribution center, corporate offices and even a factory outlet store on its leased Ualena Street property.
It employs about 60 people and has been on its property 21 years, said sales manager Adrienne Sweeney.
The company has put in $1.2 million in improvements to its facility in recent years, Sweeney said.
"This is an important location to use because we utilize ground, air and ocean shipping," she said, noting its proximity to both the airport and Honolulu Harbor. The site also makes it convenient for customers to visit the company's factory outlet.
As everyone else in the neighborhood, Island Princess operators don't know if they're in the rail's path.
"If location changes are necessary, from a smart business standpoint, it's always better for a company to make those decisions on its own rather than have them forced upon it," she said.
WAITING FOR EIS
City Transportation Services Director Wayne Yoshi-oka, in an e-mail, said a list of all right-of-way acquisitions won't be provided until the project's long-anticipated final environmental impact statement is completed.
"Letters have been mailed to affected property owners about the property acquisitions," Yoshioka said. "The project team will follow up with personal meetings and work with them through the acquisition process."
Morioka, the state transportation director, said he has yet to see the details of the city plan but believes three or four state-owned parcels on Ualena would be affected. And of those, he said, a majority are currently vacant.
Once the property owners and tenants affected are identified, "we'll work with the city to work with those tenants," Morioka said, noting that the state supports the move to Ualena.
The state purchased the makai parcels in the early 1990s and current plans call for a cargo center there for air freight services. The airport layout plan is currently being modified, but providing cargo facilities is still a priority, Morioka said.