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Wailuku parking structure in trouble

VIEWPOINT

The long-awaited parking structure project for Wailuku town is in danger of being destroyed by the Maui County Council, immediately before its construction is set to begin.

This move seems at best arbitrary and capricious, without rational logic being

presented to the public, and follows an intense 20-year process by community members to gain support and funding to design and build parking and related town improvement projects. These are at last shovel ready, and the bond financing was issued by Maui County. The bonding, at historically low interest rates, will be repaid through parking income and revenues generated by resulting improvements in the town. This is the way town infrastructure is improved worldwide.

Lack of adequate, convenient and dependable parking has long been the major issue preventing a resurgence of Wailuku as the live-work-play center for Maui residents. Our town was the thriving location for restaurants, locally owned shopping and hotels for business travelers, until the development of the shopping malls in Kahului enticed a lot of those uses and energy down the hill. This exchanged the local ownership model with chain retail, restaurants and big boxes. Wailuku’s auto dealerships and service facilities soon followed suit, leaving the town core of Wailuku a mostly empty shell.

What remained is county and state government, essential services such as medical and educational facilities, courts and legal institutions, youth, senior and social service nonprofits, churches, theater and several vibrant and growing arts facilities. Over 30,000 Maui residents work daily in Wailuku, most of them commuting in and out by automobile to other parts of Maui or the growing suburbs surrounding Wailuku. After business hours and on weekends, very few people are in town, and it has been difficult to lure folks who work in Wailuku to stay to shop and enjoy dining and entertainment.

This is in large part due to inadequate parking, safe cheerful walkable sidewalks and the absence of a central gathering place such as a town square with crowd attractors such as a central market, community center space, cafes and evening activities. This project is designed to provide these.

Wailuku was once a thriving, busy, walking town, and was until last week on a trajectory to become one again. A busy streetscape attracts people to want to live in town, and would create the social and financial incentive for new, efficient affordable housing for Maui residents who could walk or shuttle to work, schools, churches, theatrers and other nearby facilities. This is the attractive, healthy and enjoyable lifestyle that is becoming a norm throughout Europe and the Mainland as towns and cities are revitalized. A community decreasingly car-dependent saves families both money and leisure hours by eliminating the daily commute. It also benefits the environment and reduces the need for more roads.

Many studies have been done by the county with enormous community involvement that consistently showed that the next steps to get there are to create managed parking and after-hour activity generators along with safer sidewalks and alternative people movers. New restaurants and retail cannot be added to Wailuku without additional parking. Any commercial success along Market Street would gridlock the town in peak hours with additional cars circling and looking for parking.

I have been a commercial property owner in Wailuku for 25 years, having converted tired old auto dealerships and car service facilities into affordable retail stores. This has been a frustrating experience, as rents are too low to maintain or improve deteriorated buildings, and vacancy rates have been high.

It has been sad to help enthusiastic tenants with great ideas rent stores, work hard and open for business only to fail from lack of sidewalk traffic. We are among the few property owners in Wailuku with sufficient space for on-site parking for current and future uses, but the shortage of public parking inventory in town has consistently guided shoppers elsewhere.

Many commercial properties operate in Wailuku at a financial loss, with the hope that one day the town will become functional and thriving once again. We love Wailuku and our friends and neighbors here, but it is time to improve things and make it functional again while maintaining its character as our community plan mandates.

It would be a very sad and counterproductive for the Maui County Council to stop the progress that Wailuku has slowly made when it is just about to bear fruit. This will only keep Wailuku’s buildings crumbling and its sidewalks empty. It will waste a full $10 million already spent to get to this point that will now never get repaid.

Previous County Councils mandated this project to happen as part of Wailuku Redevelopment and the bonds to be issued. Ending it will lower Maui’s bond ratings and create a lack of confidence regarding Maui government’s ability to do what it says. It will forever soil Maui’s great name and reputation.

* Jonathan Starr is commercial property owner in Wailuku, renting stores to retailers for the past 25 years. He has served as chairman of the Maui Planning Commission and other county and state boards and commissions.