Redeveloping Coco Palms

KAPAA — It has been more than two decades since the Coco Palms Resort in Wailua has taken any reservations, after Hurricane Iniki shuttered the iconic hotel made famous by Elvis Presley in the 1961 film “Blue Hawaii.”

But new plans by the Honolulu-based development company Coco Palms Hui, LLC to rebuild, renovate and revitalize the historical site have drawn praise and criticism by some residents who have watched the vacant hotel along Kuhio Highway languish over the years.

“It has been a long time coming,” Kapahi resident Kimberlee Kain said at a Wailua-Kapaa Neighborhood Association meeting held Saturday at Kapaa Public Library, where the redevelopment plans were discussed. About 40 people attended the standing-room-only event.

“We are so tired of looking at that place every day as we’re driving by it, so I’m looking forward to Coco Palms coming back,” Kain added.

Not everyone, however, is convinced.

Wailua Homesteads residents Elaine and Larry LaSota say they often battle the morning traffic on Kuamoo Road and worry that traffic generated by one of the hotel’s entrances along the busy roadway may make a bad situation worse.

“In the old days, you would always see two to four buses in that Kuamoo side parking lot — at any time of the day, there would be buses going or just parked there because the tourists would come into Coco Palms and participate in tours and everything — so that’s kind of going back to the old way of doing stuff, and I think that’s a really good thing to encourage,” Larry LaSota said. “One thing that I think is horrendous is I don’t think there’s much forethought being done about Kuamoo — it’s a disaster, and if you happen to have cars coming out, they stop people who are trying to go up the hill. The lines are already too long as it is for people trying to get out, so it doesn’t work at all.”

Current plans, which will be considered by the county Planning Commission on Jan. 27, calls for the development of 273 hotel rooms and 77 suites using the hotel’s existing footprint — a slight reduction from the 398 to 403 rooms that existed in the original hotel.

These $135 million plans also include the addition of 106 new parking stalls to the existing 212 now in place.

Many of the hotel’s well-known buildings, including the 650-square-foot Chapel in Palms, 4,800-square-foot Sea Shell Restaurant, 23,056-square-foot Queen’s Hall, and 11,208-square-foot Lagoon Lotus Room, would also be preserved and restored.

“We understand that Kauai is a special place and we understand there are some other projects on the island that may or may not make sense for certain people, but for us, Coco Palms makes great sense not only because of the jobs that it will provide, not because we’re bringing back a building that already exists — that currently, for a lot of people, is an eyesore — but it’s because of the history and culture here that I think this project is so important to Kauai and the community here,” said Coco Palms Hui LLC Principal Tyler Greene.

The hotel, as a part of current design plans, will also include a 4-acre cultural center that will be dedicated to the Coco Palms Cultural Advisory Committee, a standing, six-member committee that will be charged with educating hotel employees and guiding cultural practices on the property.

“We think this will be the catalyst and the epicenter for all of the cultural activities that will be brought onto the property,” Greene said. “It’s our hope that, in going through the journey with Coco Palms, we can create a committee that outlasts not only the next five years, 30 years, 40 years, or 50 years, because let’s face it, this resort isn’t necessarily for us — it’s for our kids, it’s for their grandkids, it’s about continuing a legacy that was created by Grace (Guslander).”

An ongoing traffic impact study, Greene said, will help to address some of the concerns along Kuhio Highway and adjacent roadways. Current plans, however, outline the creation of a shuttle bus service that will take visitors from the hotel property to Wailua Beach and the Sea Shell Restaurant.

“As an environmental land use planner, I’ve got to tell you how impressed I am with your proposal for a shuttle bus,” Kilauea resident Tek Nickerson said. “We have an active model of what you’re discussing down at Nawiliwili that goes to the cruise ships, so when I look at this map, I see a cruise ship in dry dock.”

Still, some residents say they would like to see a pedestrian overpass over Kuhio Highway that would connect the hotel to Wailua Beach.

“It seems to me that would be a slam-dunk solution for all kinds of different issues,” Elaine LaSota told Greene.

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Darin Moriki reporter, can be reached at 245-0428 or dmoriki@thegardenisland.com. Follow him on Twitter at @darinmoriki.

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