Purchasing a piece of history…now what?

Squeezed July 7, 2009

Recently a small white house at 2234 University Avenue in Honolulu has gotten nationwide attention. From the New York Times, July 5, 2009:

Opponents lined up quickly when Honolulu Christian Church announced plans to convert a modest residential lot in the Hawaiian capital into parking for its growing congregation.

Surely there were enough spots on the street, opponents said. Turning the small driveway into a parking lot entrance would create safety and traffic problems. The cute old house on the property, built in the 1940s, is worth preserving.

Besides, the president used to live there.

Yes, you heard that right. Barack Hussein Obama II, the 44th President of the United States, lived in this modest house in Manoa, near the University of Hawaii. He lived for about three years here with his mother and grandparents.

The center of the controversy revolves around a nearby church, which is seeking room to expand, pitted against its neighbors who understandably want the residential character of the neighborhood to be preserved.

That controversy hits close to home for me, because Honolulu Christian Church is my church. I’ve been a member for nearly 15 years.

The church, a member of the OMS Holiness Conference of North America, was founded in 1932. It has been at its current location since 1959 and was last renovated in 1982. Since then, the church has grown. There are now about 300 members in the English-speaking division and about 150 members of the Japanese division – and only about 30 spaces in the parking lot.

Now, the church is facing a crucial point. The English division fills the sanctuary (and beyond, with folding chairs) twice every Sunday. The Japanese division is starting to reach that point with its main service. Each Sunday, cars are parked a good quarter-mile to half-mile down Oahu Avenue, making it a good 10 minute walk at times. At times it’s as bad as when the University of Hawaii is in session.

The time comes when a church gets too big and needs room to expand. It’s not like we can just go out and buy a golf course and have our services there (as First Presbyterian Church of Honolulu did a few years back). In addition, we can’t just draw up plans and build. There is a small matter of parking. Before we can break ground, we need to prove that we can provide more parking. So says the city and county. (Not that it would make the lines of cars lining Oahu Avenue disappear, but hey, the law is the law.)

Begin the search for places where members can park, so that the expansion project could move forward.

We initially tried to get the adjacent lot but the asking price was too high. Then, we received an offer that seemed, well, heaven sent. A nearby property owner offered the church first crack at his property, at a price that, compared with the others in the area, was a good deal. The church bought the property in December 2006 for $1.3 million. (My mother, who was on the board of trustees at the time, was one of those who signed the loan paperwork.)

Mind you, at that time, then-Senator Obama had not yet announced that he would run for president (that wouldn’t happen for another three months). And this was over a year from the first primaries. He was serving the good people of Illinois and was considered Hawaii’s third senator, but that was about it. Back then, people thought that Hillary Clinton would the anointed one to carry the Democrats to victory in November 2008.

My, how the Lord works in mysterious ways.

It was November 9, 2008, while Hawaii was in the giddy state of having a native son elected to the highest office in the land, when the story broke in the Honolulu Advertiser about the house being a former childhood home of Barack Obama. I remember that day well. On that day, the English and Japanese divisions met at the Princess Kaiulani Hotel to kick off the fundraising campaign for the church renewal campaign.

Apparently, word had reached the church leaders as well. One of the first things that Pastor Russell said during the event was, “I’m sure you’ve heard the news about the Walu Way property…”

I had happened to bring the Sunday Advertiser with me. I noticed the story on the front page, above the fold. Then, I happened to notice the address among the numerous childhood homes of then-President-elect Obama. 2234 University Avenue.

At that point it hit me. My gosh. We unknowingly purchased a piece of history.

And that pretty much rules out doing anything to the building. As Don Hirata mentioned, “I don’t think anyone in his right mind would break down a house that belonged to one of the presidents.”

After the Times broke the story nationwide, the Advertiser and KGMB9 followed up on the story. In fact, the Advertiser ran the story on the front page, above the fold. And as I write this, the church is considering various options, such as grasscrete around the house. Of course, some neighbors don’t want the lawn used for parking, no way, no how. Understandable, considering that Manoa is an older neighborhood.

It still comes down to a simple problem. No parking, no expansion. No expansion, a crowded church. Fundraising for the expansion project continues, and the church is still trying to work out an amicable agreement with the neighbors. I’m not sure what will happen at this point. The Advertiser article pretty much says it all:

Hirata said the church is still praying for a miracle. He hopes the nationwide publicity might persuade someone to buy the Obama home so the congregation can use the money to purchase another nearby property for the overflow parking lot.

Or, maybe, move to another location, as one neighbor suggested in the KGMB9 segment.

Anyone got a golf course up for sale…cheap?

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