Talking Story With Maui Redevelopment Agency Members Katharine Popenuk and Bill Mitchell About The Changing Face of Wailuku Town

By Anthony Pignataro

The Wailuku Redevelopment Area covers about 68 acres of Central Maui. Its approximate center is the Vineyard/Market Street intersection. Like many small towns in America, the area’s narrow streets and cramped storefronts seem to be a relic of an older age. Its heyday took place in the final decade of Hawaii’s territorial history. Most people call it Wailuku Town, though that might change in the near future.

As new shopping complexes and residential neighborhoods continue to pop up in places like Kehalani and Maui Lani, and more nonprofit organizations providing services to poor and mentally ill people open in the old town core, more residents and merchants are pointing to homeless people and broken (or non-existent) sidewalks and asking what’s happening to Wailuku Town.

The island’s old center of shopping and living is increasingly home to smaller stores and pawn shops. The Maui Grand Hotel on Main Street, once the pinnacle of luxury accommodations on the island, is now a Chevron.

Near the end of every month, the Maui Redevelopment Agency–created by state law–meets to address this question. The five-member board attempts to do something exceedingly difficult–make life nicer in the town for those who live and work there, as well as visit.

There are lots of projects swirling around the town right now–some moving towards completion, others in limbo. And though nothing particularly major has changed in Wailuku (with the exception of the First Friday Town Parties, which started organically), those small redevelopment changes that have occurred have varying degrees of popularity. Most people seem to like the big, colorful mural at the corner of Main and Market Streets, but merchants are still complaining about the beautification efforts made to Market Street a few years ago that decreased the number of parking spaces in town.

To get a handle on what’s happening now, and how it will all affect Wailuku Town, I recently sat down with Katherine Popenuk and Bill Mitchell, the chairperson and vice chairperson, respectively, of the MRA at the Maui Architectural Group office where they work, which overlooks the town.

MAUITIME: So why did both of you join the MRA board?

KATHERINE POPENUK: I moved here in 1979. I’m an architect, and I wanted to do something to give back. We have the benefit of having some strong talents on the board–Bill is a landscape architect.

BILL MITCHELL: I’ve been involved in Wailuku Town stuff for 15 years. Someone called me, said there was an opening and asked if I was interested. I said yes.

MAUITIME: How does the MRA compare with other of the county boards and commissions?

MITCHELL: It’s a little bit different function than the typical boards and commissions. We can also go out and do things within the MRA [Maui Redevelopment Area]. We can be a little proactive.

MAUITIME: Why do redevelopment at all? Why not simply let market forces dictate the makeup of Wailuku?

POPENUK: We’ve seen Wailuku come back, recede, come back again, and recede again. The last few years have been difficult. It’s a great local town–an authentic place. We’d like to see more activity, for local people as well as tourists. It’s more of a local place, though tourists are certainly welcome here.

MITCHELL: It’s a niche market. We no longer have the Kress* Store, Ooka’s. The Iao Theater has been renovated, but the big anchor tenants are no longer there. We’re left with boutique businesses that can function in smaller spaces. The way I see it, the Planning Department only has so much time to focus on any small town. We can focus on this town.

We know there’s a parking issue, trash, pedestrian circulation issues. It’s primarily a daytime-use town. How can we make pedestrian circulation more safe and more pleasant? We don’t just review plans–a planner could do that. We look at the whole project, and how it fits into the MRA area.

It’s a pretty common model in a lot of towns. Kona has one. They actually go out and do street improvements. Wailuku is a funky town, but it has all the history that goes with it. And it’s unique. But we have a fairly narrow window–we don’t go out and buy property and do redevelop them.

POPENUK: It’s a unique place that’s worth preserving. We really don’t want Wailuku to turn into New York City.

MITCHELL: Nobody has a grandiose vision of doing something beyond what’s there. But Wailuku has changed over the last 10 years. We have more social service organizations now, and the things that go with those.

MAUITIME: What do you see as Wailuku’s greatest need?

MITCHELL: If you talk to most merchants, it’s parking. The proposed Municipal Parking Garage is on the books, but there’s no will to fund it. And that may be a good thing.

There is a parking management plan done by a consultant with a lot of great recommendations. So now we’re asking what can we implement to help the situation. We have underdeveloped parking in satellite lots [around town], issues with the timing of spaces in the municipal lot–the garage is on hold, as it’s been for the last 20 years.

MAUITIME: The parking plan you speak of contains a lot of suggestions: metered parking, changing the time limit on some parking lot spaces from 12 hours to six hours, things like that. What do people in town, both residents and merchants, feel about these suggestions?

MITCHELL: We have not yet sent out a survey, that’s something we will do. Certainly on Market Street, we’re looking at shorter-term parking. We’ve talked about a mix of free and metered parking.

Now what authority does the MRA have to implement these suggestions on its own? My understanding is that we have no authority. New fees have to go through the County Council. All of these things have to go through the Council process. We’re sort of the middleman.

POPENUK: We are looking at all options we can think of to relieve stress on the parking situation. The repaving of Wells Street is coming up in the near future–how can we squeeze out an extra stall here or there? We’re trying to alleviate the parking shortage in every way we can.

But parking’s not the only issue–we’re not a one-trick pony. Other issues are pedestrian safety, sidewalks, crosswalks, shade trees. We’re sharing ideas with other agencies and organizations.

MAUITIME: What about other non-car solutions to Wailuku’s parking situation?

MITCHELL: Absolutely. These were heavily discussed in the parking structure plan, so we’ll need to revisit it now.

POPENUK: We’re planning to put in bike racks on Market Street.

MAUITIME: Nice. When?

MITCHELL: Good question. We’ll have to ask, but it should be soon.

MAUITIME: About a year ago, ReWailuku–which brought a lot of citizens in and asked them what they wanted to see in town–started up. How has that affected you?

POPENUK: We’re not sure what happens next with it, since it’s not an MRA thing, but it was extremely informative. A broad section of the town came out to say what they were interested in. They want more street trees–right now, the streets really discourage people to get out on foot. They want a grocery store. That was a well-supported issue.

MITCHELL: It validated that people put value in amenities–shade, streetscapes. Anything to do with trees, benches, food vendors–people said they love that. People in general are interested in the whole package–not just parking. There’s certainly enhanced value in someone staying; they’re likely to spend more money. That’s like shopping center 101. All of these things bring value to merchants.

POPENUK: Not just merchants. Residents, kids walking to school. We want to hear from the whole county and address those needs as much as possible.

MAUITIME: One of the issues that seems to come up now and then is crime. Now there is a Maui Police Substation on Market Street, but it’s hardly ever used. Maui Police Lt. Wayne Ibarra told me that they need to replace the current windows with bulletproof glass and add air-conditioning. Is there any kind of timetable for this?

POPENUK: That is a current topic we have. We recognize the importance of manning the police substation. We are willing to contribute a portion of our budget, but it’s expensive.

We currently have one community police representative assigned to Wailuku.

MITCHELL: Even if he’s not full-time, if they move in and out of the space at night, that would be beneficial.

POPENUK: There’s also the Clean and Safe Program that would help: making sure garbage cans aren’t overflowing; there’s not litter on the street; people not getting harassed at the ATM. We’re checking into it.

MAUITIME: It sounds like a neighborhood watch.

POPENUK: It could be an individual or a contracted service.

MAUITIME: Next to the substation, there’s a lot people use for parking that’s supposed to become something that I think is called Iao Square. About two dozen cars fit in there now, and the plans are quite controversial.

MITCHELL: It’s gone through a lot of names, and it’s called Iao Plaza now. It’s not currently a parking lot–it’s a vacant lot. Under the Parks Department plan, there would be no parking there.

POPENUK: The controversy is that people are comparing it to what is there–which is not up to code. The guidelines on parking aren’t being followed. The advantage of developing it is to make it safe. It’s going to be gravel or paved.

MITCHELL: People have already fallen there. The plaza is just a small place. A place for people to hang out, have lunch.

POPENUK: Keeping it the way it is is not an option. In the final option, there will be 24 stalls and a plaza. If you take out the plaza, you would just gain an additional stall.

MAUITIME: Right now there are two or three dedicated spots in that lot for police. Will that be the case at Iao Plaza?

MITCHELL: We assume so, but we’re not sure if they want parking in the lot or on the street.
POPENUK: There will also be at least three in the upper plaza.

MITCHELL: And four trees in the lower lot, to comply with county code.

POPENUK: And Maui Nui Botanical Gardens, which takes care of the planters on Market Street, will be involved there, as well. There is a possibility of having food vendors there. The space will be available on First Fridays. It could also be used for overflow parking for theater-users.

MITCHELL: I believe it will be the first redevelopment project that the MRA has actually built.

POPENUK: I’m not sure about that.

MAUITIME: That actually raises a good question. Looking back over the minutes for the meetings you’ve had over the last year, it sometimes seems that all you do is accept reports and commission studies. Do you ever feel that’s the case?

POPENUK: It’s not all we do. I’ve been on the MRA for about five years, and a lot of my early meetings were taken up by looking at projects seeking our approval. We’d offer suggestions on zoning and so forth. Then everything sort of stopped [with the economic downturn in 2008]. Since then, it’s given us some time to study other things that in the past we didn’t get a chance to sink our teeth into.

We get a modest budget from the county. Ideally, we might be more self-sustaining.

Maybe implementing paid parking will recycle money into more parking in Wailuku Town.

MITCHELL: And not into the General Fund.

MAUITIME: Another thing that came out of ReWailuku was this notion of “rebranding” the town. Saedene Ota of MauiThing is handling that. Why is that necessary?

POPENUK: We’re looking at creating a more unique, universal identity–icon, logo–that represents Wailuku Town. It’s not something that’s been done in the past.

MITCHELL: We have bits and pieces [of a town identity], but it’s not cohesive.

MAUITIME: How do you see Wailuku changing over the next few years?

POPENUK: Gradually. We’re doing what we can, when we can. Safety, beautification–it’s an ongoing effort. I’m hoping people see the town improving.

* I originally misspelled the name of this store.

Photo of Wailuku Town: Darris Hurst