University of Hawaii's live-work-learn project seeks go-ahead

Jun. 27—The University of Hawaii is seeking city approval for refined plans to expand its Manoa campus with a student housing and entrepreneurship program complex on the site of two historic former Atherton YMCA buildings.

UH officials hope to start construction in September on the project at the corner of University Avenue and Metcalf Street to house 373 students and an expanded Pacific Asian Center for Entrepreneurship.

The $70 million venture, which includes a new six-story building that would replace one Atherton building and be nestled behind and to the side of the second Atherton building, is to be paid for and operated by a private development partner at no taxpayer expense, and needs Honolulu City Council approval.

UH officials say the project represents a first-of-its-kind "live, learn, work " facility on campus with apartments, co-working offices, meeting rooms, classrooms and prototyping labs featuring 3D printers, scanners, sewing machines and laser cutters.

"This project represents a new era for the University of Hawaii in several ways, " UH President David Lassner said in a statement. "It will provide a dynamic immersive educational and living experience to prepare students to push the frontiers of innovation and entrepreneurship as they become the foundation of a more diverse and sustainable new economy."

Susan Yamada, vice chairwoman of UH's entrepreneurship program, said there needs to be an environment at such a leading research university for transforming research into commercial opportunities.

"This center will be an ecosystem to support UH innovators and a catalyst for entrepreneurial activity in Hawaii, " she said in a statement. "Entrepreneurs don't work nine to five, they work late into the night and on the weekends. Imagine having a space to go to, where you'll meet other like-minded people, bounce ideas around, and find the resources needed to move an idea to the next phase of startup."

If approved, the complex would realize a more ambitious plan that evolved from an idea around 2015 to simply retain and renovate apartments for UH students in the two Atherton buildings that the YMCA of Honolulu had put up for sale.

One of the two buildings, the pink three-story Charles Atherton House, was built in 1932 with Italian Renaissance-style architecture. The neighboring three-story building known as the Mary Atherton Richards House was built in 1959 in a contemporary style.

The two buildings contained 53 apartments with 80 beds for UH students, as well as YMCA programs and commercial tenants that over the years included a Burger King restaurant, yogurt retailer, fitness center and coffee shop.

A nonprofit fundraising arm of the university, the UH Foundation, bought the 1-acre property for $8 million in 2017, and envisioned spending $5 million to renovate the older pink building for improved student housing, with UH to pay $7 million over a decade to lease the residence halls.

However, this plan changed after new estimated renovation costs turned out to be double the original estimate, leading UH to pursue an enlarged project by demolishing and replacing the Mary Atherton Richards House in partnership with a private developer.

Under the current arrangement, Texas-based Hunt Development Group will lease the property from the foundation, pay for redevelopment using tax-free bonds and earn a financial return on income from student rent and amenity revenue. UH might pay Hunt rent for its entrepreneurship program space, though this arrangement has yet to be negotiated.

Also as part of the new deal, YMCA programs at the Atherton properties would be based at the Queen Liliuokalani Center for Student Services on the Manoa campus.

This current plan has drawn some negative views from nearby residents and historic preservationists, though most comments submitted to the City Council have been supportive.

Jan Henrik Tillmann, who lives close to the project site, told the Council in written testimony that the plan isn't compatible with the neighborhood and will worsen traffic and parking woes.

"We see the fall out and chaos that already exists during the semester season, " Tillmann wrote. "We have about several hundred cars, trucks and scooters charging up and down a 20ft wide tiny side street when UH is in session !!!!"

UH's project includes 45 vehicle parking stalls in the new building along with parking for 50 bicycles, which the city Department of Planning and Permitting accepts as adequate under the city's land use ordinance.

Other residents have expressed concerns about the planned new building affecting views.

In response, UH modified an initial plan for a seven-­story building rising 76 feet to a six-story building rising 66 feet.

The height limit for the property zoned for single-­family home use is 25 feet to 30 feet.

UH is seeking Council approval to extend its campus boundary, which would accommodate the taller and more dense use of the property.

The Historic Hawaii Foundation and Jeffrey Dodge, an architect who lives in the neighborhood, suggested keeping the facade of the Mary Atherton Richards House and raised concerns over an initial UH plan to connect the Charles Atherton House with the planned new building designed to reflect the historic building's character.

UH has since modified this aspect of the plan so that the new building is separated from the Charles Atherton House and features a modern look so as not to detract from the historic building's appearance. UH's plan also calls for removing two rear wings of the Charles Atherton House along with a modern restaurant space addition.

The project has received support from the Manoa Neighborhood Board, construction organizations, UH alumnae and others.

Vanessa Distajo, a board member of nonprofit organizations Malama Manoa and the Manoa Outdoor Circle, said in written testimony to the Council that she supports the project in part because of the benefits to UH and compromises made to address some community concerns.

"While I am usually against upzoning in historic Manoa, this project is an exception since it has served as a YMCA dorm with attached commercial space for many many decades, " Distajo wrote. "It was wonderful that the UH Foundation was able to purchase the property, as it is a natural extension to the campus."

DPP in May recommended approval of the project, with suggested conditions that include setting the new building back 10 feet from adjacent residential property lines and increasing open space and landscaping to preserve the appearance of the Charles Atherton House as a separate building.

The Council's Zoning and Planning Committee passed Resolution 21-127 considering the project on June 17. A hearing on the resolution by the full Council has not yet been set but could be held July 7.

UH anticipates demolishing the Mary Atherton Richards House in late July, followed by new construction in September subject to Council approval. If things go as planned for UH, project completion could be by mid-2023.