One of Hawaii’s largest transfers of park land is about to take place, when the state turns over a large portion of Kakaako makai to the city. Always Investigating looks at the costs and benefits for taxpayers.

The City and County of Honolulu is planning to spend a lot more on the area’s parks than the state’s Hawaii Community Development Authority did, but years of neglect could make for some challenges.

Always Investigating got an up-close look with Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, whose shared his vision for bringing Kakaako public land back to life after the massive handover.

“It’s a big transfer of land,” Caldwell told KHON2, “but it’s absolutely the right thing to do.”

The handover includes 41 acres of mostly Kakaako makai parks – Kakaako Waterfront Park, Kakaako Gateway Parks, and Kewalo Basin Park. In all, there are17 parcels including parks, parking lots, buildings and sheds, and areas leased to businesses and nonprofits. The deeds even cover 53 roadways and remnant parcels, including some on the mauka side of Ala Moana Boulevard.

“We wanted to do this a long time ago,” Caldwell told KHON2. “We’ve been extending the deadline repeatedly to work on issues involving the transfer, and we were ready to have the transfer occur at the end of last month. But when we did a walk-through a couple days before we found that the condition of the park from when we last did a walk-through had declined dramatically.”

Always Investigating walked the park with the mayor to see what’s on the city’s punch-list, things the HCDA is ready to spend $800,000 to clear up, and the city is already started hiring 19 groundskeepers to take over at a cost of about $470,000, with the first park transfer deeds likely to be signed within a month or two.

Always Investigating asked the mayor: Once you get title to these lands what are the first one two or three things that the public will see different in the park?

“It’s all about maintenance and operations,” Caldwell said. “The first thing I’d do is bring the bathrooms up to standards. No. 2, just making sure the grass is irrigated and it’s green all the time, and the third one is addressing the trimming of trees and the spalling of concrete that we see around.”

Park visitors share a similar to-do list.

“It’s too overwhelming. Our side, the west side, our bathrooms are clean, our parks are clean, but to come to town and to see it like that, that’s terrible,” said Pua Miner, a West Oahu resident visiting town for the day. “Take care of the bathrooms because it’s filthy, really filthy. I guess too, it’s the homeless.”

The homeless presence has come and gone and come again in different areas, lately along the sidewalks and fences. The mayor says patrols hired for Ala Moana Park would be extended into Kakaako when the city takes over.

“I think it will make a difference to some degree,” Caldwell said, “but as you know we play this game, we move them and they move somewhere else. We cannot have that happen again so we’re going to be vigilant.”

The vigilance, and the maintenance, come at a cost

“We’re looking at adding positions and of course funding for this taking over this park,” Caldwell said.

HCDA spent about $1 million a year in its park budget, $640,000 for contract maintenance and about another $400,000 for utilities. The city has allotted double that for Kakaako — $2.18 million in city salaries and expenses — plus another $1 million or so in startup equipment. Park users tell us more care, and cost, will pay off for the public and visitors.

“This would be tourist attraction, but I wouldn’t want the tourists to come here (in its current condition). I wouldn’t want my grandchildren to use it,” Miner said. “The state I guess they’ve just got their hands busy, but I think the city does take care of their parks better than the state. Us as taxpayers, we want to know, that’s why I pay taxes, why isn’t that taken care of?”

HCDA’s executive director says the agency feels somewhat sad or sentimental to see it go, but there’s a silver lining for the agency.

“HCDA is not intended to be in a district for perpetuity, our expertise is in redevelopment,” said Aedward Los Banos, executive director of the agency which oversees planning for parts of Kakaako, Kalaeloa, and now a portion of Salt Lake. “I just got the stadium district, so that’s 98 acres and a new stadium that’s got to be built, so there’s additional capacity that we’re going to gain from this. It allows us to refocus our staffing resources.”

He points out HCDA has 23 staff total; the city’s maintenance hiring alone is nearly that same headcount just for the Kakaako parks.

As for the city, they’re taking on space that’s about a third the size of Ala Moana Park, bordering a towering span of urban development

“When you think about we have Ala Moana Beach Park — 119 acres — we’re putting in a lot of effort in that park,” Caldwell said, “and really to have a park that is contiguous and comes all the way down to the entrance to Honolulu Harbor, one lei of green on a beautiful ocean ,it would be perfect. People can have it seamless, that’s our dream.”

KHON2 asked, what’s still coming to other parks, to bring equity to all parts of the island for their conditions at the public spaces?

“Through Kakou for Parks, we’re spending millions and million and millions just going back and refreshing bathrooms, putting on new tiles,” Caldwell said. “We’re restoring playground equipment that’s been destroyed, repaving volleyball courts and basketball courts an tennis courts and that kind of thing. We’re going to continue to do that at every park around the island.”

Since 2015, Kakou for Parks has refurbished portions of 156 different parks across the island, including 110 new or refurbished playground structures, 86 renovated restrooms, and 325 resurfaced play courts.

“We try to go ahead and roll out a little in each community throughout the entire island,” said Michele Nekota, director of the Department of Parks and Recreation. As for the Kakaako tasks ahead, she adds: “we’re really excited about this opportunity to get the transfer of the parks.”

The Honolulu City Council’s park committee chair says she’ s putting the topic on this month’s committee agenda to get an update on how the handoff will proceed.

“I have decided to include the issue of the Kakaako Parks land transfer and staffing changes within the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation as a discussion item for the next meeting of the Committee on Parks, Community Service and Intergovernmental Affairs being held on Tuesday, August 20,” Councilmember Heidi Tsuneyoshi told KHON2. “As it is one of the largest park land transfers in recent history, I look forward to gaining more information on how the city will be proceeding after acquisition of this substantial parcel.”

Honolulu City Council park committee chairperson Heidi Tsuneyoshi