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Questions raised about the post office site lease

Councilors concerned about funds already used to plan new building

The old Wailuku Post Office site on the corner of Wells and High streets may be part of an exchange with the state for land in Kahului for the new Maui Bus terminal. This photo was taken July 17. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Some council members Tuesday expressed unease over a possible lease exchange involving the county-owned old Wailuku Post Office site and a state-owned Kahului parcel that the county needs for a new Maui Bus hub.

The nearly half-acre site at the corner of Wells and High streets is currently used for county worker parking and envisioned for a new office building. The county is looking to exchange this site for a half-acre slice of the 5.6-acre Kahului property at the corner of Kaahumanu Avenue and Kane Street.

The Kahului site is ideal for a new Maui Bus hub, which currently is at the Queen Ka’ahumanu Center. The center will be ending its commitment to the county as the bus hub Jan. 31, 2020.

The land lease exchange proposal was in documents accompanying an item before the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp. board in June. The board is handling the Kahului Civic Center Mixed-Use Project, which involves multifamily affordable rental housing units at the site.

Council Budget and Finance Committee Chairman Riki Hokama said he wanted to get an update on the contracts involving plans and proposals for the old post office site, after the lease exchange recently was made public.

The lease exchange requires the approval of the County Council. Action on those contracts was deferred by the committee Tuesday.

What bothered some council members was that the county had spent time and money on plans to develop the old post office site.

A $1.5 million contract with Group 70 International for the design of a new building on the old post office site has been stopped with about 80 percent of the job completed, said Managing Director Keith Regan. About $1.2 million has been spent, and the county is expecting about $240,000 of the budgeted funds to not be used.

Council Member Alika Atay said that after spending almost $2 million “the end result is . . . scrapped?”

“I’m not happy,” Atay continued, adding that he has to watch how county funds are spent.

He said the county needs the parking that the post office site provides and doesn’t want to see county operations moved out of Wailuku. Residents are aware of the controversial history of the old Wailuku Post Office property, he added.

The demolition of the 54-year-old building in 2013 was one of the early flashpoints between Mayor Alan Arakawa and the County Council. The council had approved a rehabilitation of the building and questioned whether the mayor overstepped his authority by leveling the structure.

Council Member Elle Cochran expressed similar sentiments, saying she was looking forward to the development of a new county building on the old post office site as well as other improvements that were part of the master plan for the Kalana O Maui campus.

“Lot of money went into the master plan,” she said. “I’m just feeling we have such valuable space here. We already worked on this concept and planning. Now, we are going to do this exchange of leases and swap it out for the bus hub, which is needed.

“I rather we move forward. . . . So much has already gone into it.”

Cochran also wondered how crucial it is to have the old post office property as part of the deal for the bus hub.

At the meeting, Regan said he was not in the initial discussions about the land exchange but is looking to get more details from the state regarding how important the old post office property is to the agreement.

He assured members that the administration is aware of the importance of parking at the site. If the state develops the property, the county would seek to have some parking for its employees there.

He said discussions between the county and the state on the lease are ongoing.

As for the money spent on the plans, Regan said “it was not a waste of money.” The master plan has provided the county with information on renovations needed for the Kalana O Maui and the Kalana Pukui buildings and about space needs for departments.

Although work has stopped on the old post office project, it could be restarted if the next administration or future council chooses to develop the site, Regan said outside the meeting. These plans will not expire and could be revived at anytime.

The designs could be sold if the county decides to trade, sell or lease the land to another entity, such as the state, he added.

Hokama told the members that the lease issue was not yet before the council, but he’s sure the administration is hearing the comments of members.

He did add that the exchange could help solidify state government’s position in Wailuku. There had been rumblings of moving government offices to Puunene, which Hokama said he would oppose.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.