A rendering of the UH Atherton complex reimagined as “The Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship” (printed with permission by Michael Lam of Hunt Companies

by Vanessa Distajo

Growing up in Lower Mānoa, generations of children have been taught to find their way home using the pink Atherton building as their guide. Located on the corner of University Avenue and Metcalf Street, the landmark was appropriately named for the generous, philanthropic donor, Charles Atherton, who funded the construction. Since 1932, the building served as a dormitory for the YMCA, welcoming a myriad of students to the University of Hawai’i’s Mānoa campus with the sun-kissed glow of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. In 2017, the UH Foundation acquired the property of 43,000+ square feet, with the hopes of expanding student housing opportunities.

After years of planning by the UH Foundation and visionary UH administrators, the landmark has been reimagined as “The Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship” to serve as a mixed-use live/work/learn eco-system for the expanding number of UH programs. The primary focus will be the Pacific Asian Center for Entrepreneurship or “PACE” program, which was envisioned by Susan Yamada, the Director of UH Ventures. It will serve as a catalytic project for economic diversification and reinvention, which is critically needed for 2021 and beyond. In addition, a recent study, by Myers Research, determined unmet demand for over 5,000 student beds, so the project will begin to alleviate the university’s housing shortage.

Thus, the UH Foundation, UH Mānoa, and Hunt Companies united in a true public-private partnership to address the pressing needs with this $70 million project, of all private, non-taxpayer funds. On the University’s side, the ambitious plan is being managed by Kalbert K. Young, the UH Chief Financial Officer/Vice President of Budget and Finance. Indeed, this is a very wise assignment by President David Lassner because Young grew up in the neighborhood, and has a genuine interest in maintaining the charm, safety, and security of the area since his mother still resides close by. At the helm for Hunt Companies, Michael Lam, the Senior Vice President of Development for the Hawai’i Region, is coordinating with the talented team of architects and the consummate professional Community Outreach Consultant, Lori Lum, of Watanabe Ing LLP. Like Young, Lam and Lum are also local success stories who have stayed home to share their unique skill sets for the betterment of the community.

The project that they are collaborating on entails the former Atherton YMCA building being repurposed into academic and commercial space. To complement it, an additional six-story building will be raised where the Mary Atherton Richards House currently resides. The taller structure will integrate academic and co-working areas with housing for up to 374 students, who may move in as early as Fall 2023.

Since the collegiate generation is more likely to utilize newer transportation modes, including car share and Biki bikes, the updated property will make the necessary accommodations. For those who drive, there will be limited parking on site; however, UH Mānoa currently plans to build an on-campus parking facility with more than 400 stalls, depending on funding. A parking structure, within walking distance on campus proper, will surely ease the parking woes felt by the surrounding neighbors. The developers were attuned to this concern because they diligently engaged the community stakeholders in the planning process. In Fall 2019, they contacted Mānoa Neighborhood Board Chair Dylan Armstrong, who arranged for a prompt presentation at a public meeting. After hearing overwhelming testimony in support by current UH students and faculty, the MNB members voted 9-1 in support of the project concept. Then, understanding Mālama Mānoa’s mission of historical preservation, the developers met with our board of directors and advisors multiple times. They earnestly listened to our comments, making numerous modifications to the initial plans to resolve our concerns. The project’s latest design has been informed by our input, area residents, and the board members of organizations such as Mānoa Outdoor Circle, Historic Hawai’i Foundation, and Trees for Honolulu’s Future. Construction is slated to begin before the end of this calendar year, but don’t worry, the historic Atherton building will remain “pretty in pink!”

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