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Address windows issue to facilitate office conversions

The following testimony was submitted by the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii for consideration by the Honolulu City Council on Oct. 18, 2023.
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October 18, 2023
9 a.m.
Honolulu City Council Chambers

To: Honolulu City and County Council
      Councilmember Calvin Say, Chair
      Councilmember Tyler Dos Santos-Tam, Vice Chair

From: Grassroot Institute of Hawaii
           Ted Kefalas, Director of Strategic Campaigns

RE: Bill 54 (2023) — RELATING TO THE ADAPTIVE REUSE OF COMMERCIAL BUILDINGS

Comments Only

Dear Chair and Councilmembers:

The Grassroot Institute of Hawaii would like to offer its comments on Bill 54 (2023), which would for a five-year period facilitate the conversion of commercial buildings to multifamily residential units by creating alternate natural light and ventilation regulations.

The practice of converting commercial buildings to residential use is commonly known as “adaptive reuse,” and is one of many ways Honolulu can increase its housing stock.

As Grassroot Institute of Hawaii President Keli‘i Akina put it in his “President’s Corner” column in April: “Given Hawaii’s high material and construction costs that contribute to the high price of housing in the islands, adaptive reuse is a great way to make housing more affordable.”[1]

According to the real estate firm Colliers, Honolulu’s office vacancy rate stood at 13.66% in the first quarter of 2023,[2] with the downtown area being hit the hardest.

Colliers said it expects “office building conversion activity” to make up for decline in office space demand. However, because many of the large commercial buildings constructed do not have openable windows, ventilation regulations in the building code can make adaptive reuse cost prohibitive. It is simply too expensive to retrofit windows for a large office building.

Thus, Bill 54 proposes a temporary avenue for adaptive reuse projects to meet certain ventilation standards.

These standards would not require openable windows for all housing units, but specify that non-openable windows must provide a certain amount of natural light. The bill provides that natural and mechanical ventilation systems may take the place of openable windows in some instances.

Bill 54 takes individual and community concerns into account by requiring that any project seeking approval under this bill would have to submit a detailed application to the city Department of Planning and Permitting and receive Council approval in order to proceed. Factors to be considered in the approval process would include whether the project would harm the health of the occupants.

The Institute supports the changes outlined in Councilmember Say’s proposed amendment, especially the language that reduces from 90 days to 60 days the amount of time the Planning and Permitting director has to act on a project proposal.

In addition, to further to streamline the approval process, the Grassroot Institute suggests changing the project approval process from automatic denial without Council action to automatic approval without Council action by amending Section 2(d)(1) of the bill as follows:

The Council, upon receipt of the Director’s recommendation, has 60 days to take action on the Director’s recommendation, with or without modifications or conditions of approval, by the adoption of a resolution; provided that if the Council does not take any action on the resolution, the approval of the project’s conceptual plan will be deemed approved [denied]. The Council may approve an extension of the 60-day deadline upon the written request of the applicant.

Likewise, Section 2(d)(3) of the bill should be changed to read:

(D) If the Council fails to take final action on the proposed      extension within the first to occur of:

(i) Sixty days after the receipt of the Directors report; or

(ii) The applicant’s then-existing deadline for obtaining a building permit;

the extension will be deemed approved [denied]. 

These two amendments would put the responsibility for acting on an adaptive reuse project on the Council, instead of letting projects be denied without a Council vote.

We would also suggest removing the current five-year sunset clause. There is no good reason that streamlining adaptive reuse should be limited to such a short time period.

Thank you for the opportunity to submit our comments.

Sincerely,

Ted Kefalas
Director of Strategic Campaigns
Grassroot Institute of Hawaii
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[1] Keli’i Akina, “Is there life after Downtown Walmart?” Grassroot Institute, April 2, 2023.

[2] Mike Hamasu, “Office Market Takes A Step Backward,” Colliers, April 20, 2023.

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