Lofty Aspirations in Honolulu’s Chinatown

I use to walk through downtown Honolulu every day, a sort of meditative, pre-work stroll that was both a necessity ($275 per month for parking was not part of my budget) and a pleasure. My I-could-walk-it-blindfolded familiarity with the downtown streets meant that I knew when new stores and restaurants moved in, when a local gallery changed out its exhibit, if a long-time vendor closed. I found the presence of the familiar locales and vendors’ faces as comforting as a broken-in pair of slippahs.

So I was bit shocked when I found myself walking my same, old route the other day and noticed dozens of forlorn-looking, abandoned storefronts, eateries and office spaces, and historic addresses, such as the Hawaii Times building, up for sale. The down-in-the-dumps economy is most certainly to blame for the lackluster street scene that spread out before me, an all-the-more-unfortunate situation given the energy and momentum that was surging through downtown prior to the economic fall-out.

Thankfully, before I got too far into my pity party, I heard about a project that’s bringing renewed energy to the downtown arts scene, and making pretty smart use of a long-empty, historic building: an artists’-lofts complex in the 109-year-old Mendonca Building. The project is a joint undertaking between the Hawaii Academy of Performing Arts (HAPA), a non-profit organization, and the building’s owners, Ernest and JoDee Hunt. “Everyone told the landlord that it wouldn’t pay to put in a second-story lofts space,” says Rich Richardson, the ARTS at Marks Garage creative director and manager of the lofts complex. “This is the project designed to prove that it can be done gracefully and economically.”

For the past five years, the only occupants of the building’s second floor were empty cubicles, evidence of the space’s previous life as an office for a local community group. The large space was divided into 10 separate units ranging between approximately 600 and 1,500 square feet, each one renovated and upgraded with new bathrooms and utility sinks. And while these new additions (along with AC units) make the lofts much more livable, it’s the vestiges of yesteryear—brick walls, high ceilings, tall, glass windows that flood the rooms with light, views of Maunakea Market Place—that lend the lofts their appropriately artsy vibe.

Interested parties are required to submit an application, and will be handpicked based on “creative merit.” According to Richardson, they’re looking for a multicultural and multidisciplinary mix of artists—currently, several lofts have been rented by a painter, print maker, a couple that makes ceramics and jewelry, and an artists’ cooperative working in a number of mediums, including writing and video art. “People are definitely buying into a chance at synergy in Chinatown,” says Richardson. “It’s become a hot spot for creative individuals who want to be with like minds. It’s an opportunity to gather in an older, urban center.”

Money talk: Rent costs between $826 and $2,555 per month, not including GET and utilities. Apply at

Visit: Stop by the Mendonca Building’s courtyard on First Fridays, when several of the resident artists show their work.

For more information: 778-6392,