Community envisions revitalized future for Big Island’s Waiākea Peninsula during design lab workshop
November 19, 2023, 1:00 AM HST
During what looked like an elementary art class, adults used materials such as Play-Doh, cotton balls, chopsticks, paperclips, colorful twist ties — and even little green Army men toys — to create sculptures to represent what they see as the current reality on Hilo’s Waiākea Peninsula that includes historic Banyan Drive.
The Big Island residents had about 10 minutes to mold and shape their creations, taking into account the history of the peninsula, traditions, environment and other aspects of the place.
Some were literal, taking the shape of the peninsula and including existing structures and other features such as Liliu‘okalani Gardens, Reeds Bay Beach Park and Coconut Island. Others were abstract, with themes ranging from family and inclusivity to the ocean and coming together with aloha.
This design lab workshop — conducted Wednesday morning at the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel on Banyan Drive — was an opportunity for the more than 20 community members and officials to think critically about what they envision for the future revitalization of the area.
The peninsula once was a hub for Native Hawaiian spiritual and cultural practices and later became a thriving economic center and tourist destination, with the road lined by banyan trees, several planted by famous people. Now, parts have become rundown and a haven for illegal activity and the homeless.
Workshop participants shared their thoughts as part of an effort to craft a guiding document to shape the peninsula’s future.
“The only way that we can actually get to a vision is to allow people to share things about the area,” said the workshop’s host, Hawai‘i County Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy, who represents the area.
The community insights also will help inform the creation of a mural design to be installed at the site of the former Uncle Billy’s Hilo Bay Hotel, ground zero for the area’s decline. The condemned hotel property, owned by the state, sits between the Hilo Hawaiian and Grand Naniloa hotels.
The mural is meant to be a testament to the community’s hopes and dreams for the peninsula.
Momentum for revitalization of the peninsula and Banyan Drive areas picked up steam after Hawai‘i Gov. Josh Green signed an emergency proclamation in July to help clean up, secure and demolish the Uncle Billy’s property, which became a den for illegal activity — from squatting to drug use and even arson — after it permanently closed in 2017.
Green signed a second emergency proclamation in September for the former 146-room hotel site. On Nov. 9, the governor extended the relief period again, issuing a third emergency proclamation, which is effective until Jan. 8, 2024.
A perimeter fence has been placed around the property and demolition, estimated to cost $13.5 million, could start as early as the first quarter of next year. The site also is now under 24-hour surveillance by the state.
But revitalization of the area is more than just getting rid of the eyesore that is Uncle Billy’s and related problems.
Throughout the 2 1/2-hour workshop, participants learned about the history of the peninsula and Coconut Island and used their sculptures as part of several activities led by facilitators with community-based leadership organization Vibrant Hawai‘i.
The first activity asked participants to look at their sculptures and think about what they love and are frustrated about on the peninsula; what needs to end; and the key conflicts and hard truths that must be faced. The question also was posed: What needs to emerge on the peninsula?
While there were many answers to each question, a couple of themes came through loud and clear: the peninsula is a hidden gem that could become the heart of Hilo and the community needs to work together to make that happen.
The second activity expanded on the first, with community members once again looking at their sculptures and this time asking: What could people do on their own or in partnership with others to help revitalize the area? And what is outside their control?
A third question later in the workshop asked participants to think about if their sculpture could speak, what would it say about the way to move forward.
Ideas for the peninsula’s future were abundant and ran a wide gamut. Many also jived with other suggestions for the area previously expressed by Big Island residents in a Big Island Now poll at the end of July. They included:
- Additional green space.
- More ways to learn about the peninsula’s history and cultural importance, including building a cultural center and/or museum and having classes, other workshops and forums there.
- Preserving the most historic banyan trees along Banyan Drive.
- Planting more native Hawaiian plants in the area, possibly making ‘ulu (breadfruit) trees the symbol of the peninsula.
- Construction of elderly housing at the site of the former Uncle Billy’s after it’s demolished and cleaned up.
- Creating a walking trail around the peninsula.
- Creating an indigenous data center.
- Housing for homeless people.
- Adding entertainment, fishing and picnicking opportunities.
There was a general consensus of making the area safe and enjoyable for families and returning it to its former glory while balancing the complex issues that are involved there, including tourism and crime, and others that are outside human control such as natural disasters, climate change and sea level rise.
Participants also agreed that the more visible efforts already underway become, the more excitement will be generated as the word spreads. This will hopefully help alleviate some of the community apathy that has developed in connection with the state of the peninsula.
They also agreed more people need to get involved.
Hawai‘i state Rep. Richard Onishi, who represents Hilo at the state Capitol in Honolulu, was at Wednesday’s workshop. He has been working on the redevelopment of Banyan Drive and the Waiākea Peninsula area since he was elected to the state Legislature 11 years ago, with a goal of the area becoming a place where families in East Hawai‘i can thrive.
“For me, this has been a tremendously enlightening experience,” he said of the workshop.
The objectives of Wednesday morning’s workshop and two others, one in October and another on Wednesday afternoon, were to engage community members, showcase their collaboration, inform policy and development plans for the area, ignite economic revitalization and rekindle a sense of community belonging and responsibility on the peninsula.
Those are designed to align with the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources strategic assessment report due to the state Legislature in January 2024 and inform future conversations with Hawai‘i County’s Banyan Drive Hawai’i Redevelopment Agency.
As the workshop was coming to a close, two of Vibrant Hawai‘i’s 11 art fellows for 2023, artist Kerry Green of Kaʻū and musician Ninamarie Bell of Kona, presented works they crafted during the meeting.
Green presented a painting and Bell sang and played a verse of a song she wrote based on the ideas and thoughts shared by participants.
To end the workshop, participants shared one word of hope to guide the revitalization process forward. They included: love, value, aloha ‘āina (land), prosperity, kuleana (responsibility), ulu (to grow and expand), cohesive, change, unity, community, steadfast and courage.
“What we heard today were many stories of hope — what it’s like, what it could be like and that sharing of hale aloha, fond memories of this place,” Lee Loy said. “What I heard loud and clear was just the need for kākoʻo. Everybody needs to work.”