WAILUA — The ongoing melodrama about the future of the former Coco Palms Resort property in Wailua took a new turn last week when Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. gave a one-word answer to a question during an interview.
“Do you believe the hotel’s developers have the capacity to see the project to completion?”
The mayor’s answer: “No.”
He continued: “I’m going to say that comfortably. I’m not happy.”
“We gave them so many chances,” he said, even after the hotel grounds were occupied by Hawaiian sovereignty advocates, who managed to frustrate efforts to dislodge them for more than a year. Ultimately, a court ordered the occupiers evicted, though part of the case remains on appeal.
Perhaps significantly, two candidates running to replace the term-limited Carvalho as mayor — County Council Chair Mel Rapozo and Councilmember Derek Kawakami — agree with him that the Coco Palms developers have failed to deliver on their promises and that finding other adaptive reuses for the site may be appropriate. Rapozo said he plans to hold a County Council hearing to explore what’s happening with Coco Palms.
The two principals in Honolulu- based GreeneWaters Group — Tyler Greene and Chad Waters, who own Coco Palms and plan to develop the dilapidated resort through Coco Palms Hui LLC — say the project is still going forward and took immediate issue with Carvalho’s statement, saying the comment surprised them because the mayor “has been a very strong supporter of the project from the very beginning.”
Indeed, Carvalho has repeatedly made optimistic comments about Coco Palms in the past, which is a major reason his change of attitude may be a significant new obstacle for the developers to overcome.
Despite Carvalho’s statement, Greene and Waters are insistent that the project is still on track, though Greene said they do not yet have any of the 24 building permits needed to begin construction. He also declined to identify any general contractor that may have been chosen for the project.
The GreeneWaters Group has never been willing to discuss sources of money for the project or to identify investors.
“As I did not hear what the mayor said to you and the context of the conversation you had with him, I am not able to comment on what you claim that he said,” Greene said in an extended email response to a series of questions posed by The Garden Island on Friday.
Carvalho’s tone was measured, but his frustration clear.
“We had a good plan in place in working with the developer. We did complete the bigger picture, and we completed removal of the asbestos,” he said, and other hazardous materials that had remained in the hotel complex since it was devastated and closed by damage from Hurricane Iniki in 1992. In that respect, the mayor said, the hotel site is as free of dangerous materials and wreckage as it was just before the hurricane hit.
One of Carvalho’s major complaints is that, in many respects, more than 25 years after Iniki, Coco Palms remains a blighted presence on Kuhio Highway. It is badly overgrown and the shells of its buildings are covered in many places with graffiti. Guest parking garages beneath the remaining concrete frames of the original structures are filled with fetid water.
“It sits there overgrown,” he said of Coco Palms. “I told them to maintain it, but it’s not happening.”
Greene took issue with the mayor’s comment.
“We like to cut the grass down every couple of months,” he said. “We are securing the appropriate machines to give it another full cut. We currently have a full-time security and maintenance person on property. We are about to start the pre-construction phase.”
When a TGI reporter visited the property on Thursday afternoon, however, there was no sign of any maintenance or security personnel. Gates were standing wide open and, though the reporter was on the property for nearly an hour, he was never challenged.
Ironically, however, for the first time since Hurricane Iniki, it is now possible to get something to eat at Coco Palms. That is due to a food truck claiming to have “the best Mexican food in Hawaii” that has taken up residence in a former hotel parking lot right at the intersection of Kuhio Highway and Kuamoo Road.
Greene said the food truck was allowed to set up there to serve food to people taking occasional guided tours.
Doubts about the ability of GreeneWaters to deliver a completed hotel redevelopment have dogged the project for more than five years. Over the last few months, TGI has discussed the status of Coco Palms with a number of top county government officials, including some in the Planning Department, all of whom have expressed extreme skepticism that the project will ever be completed. Carvalho has been about the only high government official who had previously stayed out of the public Coco Palms fray.
During the eviction trial, which stretched out over more than a month, broad speculation arose about whether Coco Palms actually had the investor backing that would be needed to see through what has been estimated to be a $145 million project. There were repeated reports during the trial of investors walking away from Coco Palms because of the potential ramifications of the project being the ongoing subject of opposition within the Native Hawaiian community.
Greene and Waters have been asked by TGI repeatedly over the last three years to identify their investors, but they have never agreed to do so. Greene said Coco Palms also does not yet have insurance to protect its senior construction loan. Construction drawings have not been completed, Greene said.
Fall from grace
The rotting and filthy complex drivers see as they pass by Coco Palms today is far from what the resort was in its heyday, when it was the darling of Hollywood celebrities and Kauai’s best resort. Coco Palms opened in 1952, partly on land leased from what became the state. The property today remains about one-third on state land, though Coco Palms Hui owns the land on which the major structures are situated along Kuhio Highway.
Elvis Presley may have been Coco Palms’ most famous guest. He filmed the movie “Blue Hawaii” on the grounds and stayed there as a guest on many occasions. But Presley was far from the only celebrity who frequented Coco Palms, and his movie far from the only one filmed there or nearby. Other stars associated with Coco Palms in its glory days in the 1950s and 1960s included Rita Hayworth, Jose Ferrer and Aldo Ray.
But by the 1980s, as Kauai saw increased resort development and became a better known tourist destination, Coco Palms began to fade and proved increasingly unable to compete with properties like the St. Regis Resort in Princeville or the Grand Hyatt in Poipu. After Iniki, an insurance dispute arose regarding the damage to Coco Palms and it was not repaired.
Since Iniki, questions have only become more numerous about whether Coco Palms can be returned to anything approaching its former glory, even if GreeneWaters is able to proceed with construction. The group purchased the property in 2016. In 2016, GreeneWaters announced an agreement with Hyatt Hotels’ Unbound program under which Hyatt will manage any reopened Coco Palms, which is envisioned to have 350 rooms.
But doubts have dogged the project continually, not least because traffic congestion in Kapaa is often at its worst on the section of Kuhio Highway that the hotel fronts. Traffic noise, exhaust emissions and increasingly severe congestion have always loomed as obstacles a new Coco Palms might not be able to surmount.
Carvalho’s new pessimism about whether Coco Palms has a future was shared by Kawakami.
“It’s a challenge,” Kawakami said of Coco Palms’ plight. “That beach is not a good swimming beach. When I was growing up, my parents would never let me go in the water there. The highway is going to be further congested.
“The mayor hit the nail on the head. There are a lot of people saying, ‘Here we go again and are we going to be stuck with it as an eyesore for decades to come?’”
Rapozo was even more forceful. In a statement released Friday night, Rapozo said: “Like the mayor, I am concerned about the ability of the developers to complete this project. I met with Chad Waters on July 26 and he (said) construction would begin shortly. Construction has not started. I am planning to post an agenda item within the next month, in our Planning Committee, to get an update from Chad and Tyler on the future of Coco Palms and their ability to complete the project as promised.
“If they are unable to deliver what they committed to, I would be in full support of the mayor’s idea to partner with the state and private sector to convert that property into a cultural education facility.”
Though plans have been announced to develop a cultural center as part of the resort, both Carvalho and Kawakami said the property could be better used by being converted to a cultural education center that could attract students and residents from all over the state.
Carvalho said the existing concrete shells of the former hotel buildings could be repurposed as dormitories or student housing.
“If I had a chance, I would transform that property into a cultural site,” Carvalho said. “Take that entire property and shift it over to the University of Hawaii system. People could come and visit,” and find concentrated Hawaiian cultural education resources available nowhere else in the state.
Allan Parachini of Kilauea is a former public relations executive who writes periodically for The Garden Island.
Editor’s note: This story has been edited to correct the figure for estimated cost of the project to $145 million. It was also changed to reflect that it was not repaired following Hurricane Iniki due to an insurance dispute. It was purchased in 2016, and it was not purchased out of foreclosure.