Features

Nikki Senter – The Howard Hughes Corp.

It takes an attorney to help build the ‘Village’

Nikki Senter has vivid memories of visiting areas of the Kakaʻako district between downtown Honolulu and Waikiki as she was growing up. However, they aren’t always that pleasant.

“When I was a girl, it was full of warehouses, fish markets and parking lots,” she says. “Now families can come down here to enjoy the coastal neighborhood.”

Nikki Senter | Senior Assistant General Counsel for Real Estate | The Howard Hughes Corp.

Nikki Senter | Senior Assistant General Counsel for Real Estate | The Howard Hughes Corp.

As senior assistant general counsel for real estate for The Howard Hughes Corp., Senter is helping redevelop 60 acres of that industrial space in the heart of Honolulu as her employer creates a master-planned community called Ward Village.

“I think I’m unique in that I was born in Honolulu and I’m a fifth generation resident. I have the opportunity to redevelop an area that’s part of my home,” she says. “I’m grateful to be with a conscientious developer that understands the valuable nature of the land and the environment.”

Storied name, storied area

The Howard Hughes Corp. was formed in Texas when it was spun off General Growth Properties as part of GGP’s bankruptcy proceedings in 2010. It takes its name from the original Howard Hughes Corp., the name given in 1994 to a holding company for business interests of now-deceased billionaire Howard Hughes Jr.

The current Howard Hughes Corp. develops residential, commercial and retail projects throughout the U.S. in states including New York, Maryland, Arizona, Texas and Nevada. Ward Village is its only development in Hawaii, and it’s named for Curtis and Victoria Ward, who once owned land where the community is located.

Some of the Ward estate was bought by the city of Honolulu in the late 1950s to build the Neal S. Blaisdell Center, which has an arena, exhibition hall and concert hall.

Nikki Senter | Senior Assistant General Counsel for Real Estate | The Howard Hughes Corp.

In 1976, Hawaii legislature created the quasi-governmental Hawaii Community Development Authority to oversee planned commercial and residential development of the Ward acreage. In 2009, HCDA approved the Ward Village Master Plan, which had been submitted by Victoria Ward Ltd. In 2010, Victoria Ward Ltd. became a subsidiary of The Howard Hughes Corp.

Before joining The Howard Hughes Corp. in July 2019, Senter worked with the company as outside counsel while a partner at the law firm of Imanaka Asato LLC. She provided legal support on the first mixed-use developments including One Ala Moana, Waiea and Anaha.

When fully developed, Ward Village will have 14 high-rise condominiums. Nearly 2,700 condo units have been built and 1,600 are under construction. The housing will be complemented by parks, upgraded streets and almost 1 million square feet of retail and restaurant space when the project is completed.

An expansive practice

Senter collaborates with the development team in planning and building the condominium projects. She represents the company as it buys and sells land in Hawaii, and as it gets and refinances construction loans.

For ongoing projects, such as the 40-story, 350-unit Victoria Place, Senter helps get permits and approvals for construction. She also drafts and manages agreements with contractors building the condominiums. Senter reviews environmental impact reports and disclosures, too, ensuring the corporation doesn’t impinge on indigenous burials or archeological sites.

Because Ward Village is on land governed by the HCDA, the company approaches it as opposed to Honolulu city government agencies to get master plan approvals. The process can be complicated because the board members serve two-year terms and turnover can be frequent.

Nikki Senter | Senior Assistant General Counsel for Real Estate | The Howard Hughes Corp.

On occasion, such as for construction of a pedestrian bridge linking Ward Village to the shoreline, Senter also works with agencies, such as the federal and Hawaii transportation departments. (The bridge is scheduled to be completed in 2024.)

As construction progresses, Senter and her paralegal draft the new condominium deeds that are submitted to the state. They also draft closing documents for all the unit sales while working with escrow and title companies.

While commercial leases for Ward Village’s retail spaces are managed at corporate headquarters in Texas, Senter is responsible for creating the agreements and infrastructure easements that subdivide lands within the district into roads, as well as recreational, retail and industrial areas. In addition to legally creating condominium projects, Senter registers the projects with the state for sale.

“My focus is in the flow and overall functionality of the individual projects and master community, as well as efficient land use,” Senter says. “There’s a surgical aspect in determining use of areas to have the best functionality and feel.”

A proactive practice

Senter earned her bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Hawaii at Mānoa in 1993, specializing in travel industry management. She then worked in the hotel industry throughout the 1990s.

When the travel industry slumped, Senter said she wanted a steadier way to make a living. She enrolled at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa William S. Richardson School of Law in 1998 and found she enjoyed property law.

“I love being proactive in avoiding issues with documentation,” Senter says.

Nikki Senter | Senior Assistant General Counsel for Real Estate | The Howard Hughes Corp.

Senter earned her J.D. in 2001 and has worked in-house, as well as in private practice. She’s also been involved extensively with the Hawaii Real Estate Commission as a condominium consultant, commission chair from 2011 to 2020 and vice chair since June 2021.

On the commission, she helps oversee Hawaii’s 18,500 real estate licensees, including reviewing complaints and taking disciplinary actions if needed. Senter also trains The Howard Hughes Corp. real estate sales staff in Hawaii.

After working with The Howard Hughes Corp. as outside counsel for almost a decade, Senter joined the company in July 2019. Away from the office, she heads for the ocean as frequently as possible to swim, standup paddle and surf.

“I’m passionate about condos because they’re an efficient use of land for providing homes in Hawaii where land in the urban core is limited,” Senter says.

View this feature in the Vanguard Spring I 2023 Edition here.

Published on: February 28, 2023

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