Reviving Downtown and Chinatown

 

Nearly every Downtown block shows promise of being revamped amid the grit. Can Honolulu’s urban core make a comeback?

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By ROBBIE DINGEMAN
Photos by OLIVIER KONING and AARON K. YOSHINO
Illustration by KALANY OMENGKAR
Honolulu Mag Chinatown Kalany Omenkar

Ryan Kalei Tsuji and Tara Shimooka know the risks of owning a bar, especially in an area grappling with crime, shuttered storefronts and urban grime, yet in late 2022, they were set to open The Lei Stand, a pau hana cocktail lounge

 

on Bethel Street, on the edge of Chinatown. Their aim: to honor the neighborhood’s long-standing and colorful history. “We are a lei stand,” Tsuji says, where a customer can buy a lei along with a Coconut Wireless cocktail, a twist on a Manhattan. The 30-something friends are among a cadre of entrepreneurs and investors committed to a Chinatown and Downtown revival, a vision that’s building momentum. “Being in Chinatown was something we wanted to be a part of,” Tsuji says.

 

The pandemic, by all measures, rocked life across Downtown and Chinatown, as it did across the planet. Some office workers left for a while, and others are gone for good; neighborhood crime continues to make news; and the houseless still linger on the streets. But there are signs that big changes may be around the corner: large-scale projects to renovate long-standing buildings into hotels, apartments and company headquarters, as well as smaller entrepreneurial launches. The city has boosted police presence and supported cleanups, while community leaders continue to brainstorm ways to make the streets safer. At the root of this planned transformation is a core belief that Chinatown and Downtown, Honolulu’s historic and cultural hub, are worth preserving.

↑ Business partners Tara Shimooka and Ryan Kalei Tsuji at the Lei Stand
Business partners Tara Shimooka and Ryan Kalei Tsuji in The Lei Stand lounge. Photo: Olivier Koning

The True Believers

 

Chinatown and Downtown communities meet and mingle on Bethel across from the century-old Hawai‘i Theatre, steps from Hotel Street, known for its World War II-era red-light district and lingering aura of vice. Nearby blocks include legacy lei shops, noodle houses, art galleries, hip boutiques, and an array of cuisine ranging from modern Vietnamese and smash burgers to contemporary Korean. It’s a few more blocks to the state’s center of finance, business and government.

 

Downtown Honolulu and Chinatown share crucial issues but have different identities. Think Bishop Street banker as typical of Downtown; in Chinatown, it’s the entrepreneur who opens a place on Nu‘uanu Avenue. Both attract regulars—to bank, work, shop and eat—but as of late 2022, both communities still emptied by sundown, remained sleepy on weekends and sometimes smelled like urine. Business leaders see renovation that’s now underway as strengthening a connection between the two sides with mutual benefit.

Roberta Oaks Paul Strouse
Designer Roberta Oaks and her other half, photographer Paul Strouse. Photo: Olivier Koning

At the corner of Nu‘uanu and Pauahi, Hawai‘i fashion designer Roberta Oaks expanded to a bigger boutique in October 2020. She says visitors from all over the world seek the area’s chic, diverse, creative vibe, despite the neighborhood’s problems. “Some of O‘ahu’s best locally owned and operated restaurants, coffee shops, boutiques, art galleries, tattoo shops, barbershops and artist studios thrive and coexist beside a diverse community of local farm, produce, lei and flower shops,” she says. “[But] I do think the drugs on the streets have gotten worse.”

 

Oaks credits Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s administration for pushing forward on key safety issues. “The more businesses that are open during the day and night, the less likely someone will be sleeping or shooting up in a doorway,” she says. Her other half, photographer Paul Strouse, built out a photo studio across Pauahi and hosts occasional gallery events there. It’s where she opened her first shop in 2009. “Chinatown has it all, and it’s local, it’s real, it’s historical, it’s inspiring, and yeah, it has some grit, too,” Oaks says.

Robynne Maii Chuck Bussler Fried Chicken Sandwich
Chef Robynne Maii and husband Chuck Bussler outside their restaurant, Fête. Photos: Olivier Koning

James Beard Award-winning chef Robynne Maii and her husband, Chuck Bussler, preside at Fête, a cozy elevated Hotel Street bistro that successfully navigated the pandemic. Bussler says crime and safety remain issue No. 1 and change happens only when people keep pushing. “In the past, what I’ve seen is an ebb and flow,” he says. People work, conditions improve, advocates ease off, “things start backsliding, and so I think people just need to keep it up, keep it up, and keep it up.”

 

Bussler was a major force behind a pandemic program to allow outdoor dining in Honolulu, a nationwide trend that helped keep eateries afloat, offered safer alfresco seating and brought business districts back to life. That program expired when the city’s emergency orders ended, but this past October, the city started permitting for a two-year pilot project to allow some outdoor dining. While a step in the right direction, Bussler notes the permitting requires approvals of three government departments and certain steps that could only be done in-person, not online. He wonders if some new investors will become so frustrated by the bureaucratic hurdles that they’ll “just walk away because it’s so antiquated.”

Chinatown Buildings
Photos: James Nakamura
Victoria Boutique

Business owners say such government initiatives play a vital role in keeping Downtown and Chinatown economically competitive. The pandemic shuttered businesses permanently across the state and on nearly every block of Honolulu’s core. We’ll miss Square Barrels for pau hana and the convenience of two Bishop Street Longs Drugs/CVS stores. Big chains of Starbucks and Jamba Juice also fled the downturn, shuttering some Downtown locations.

 

However, when Longs exited Executive Centre earlier this year, it made space for a Korean business, 88 Mart, which had been displaced by development on Ke‘eaumoku Street. Developer Robert Kurisu says he’s encouraged to be among several companies investing in Downtown. He’s also part of a second generation of developers making an impact there. (At 37, he’s following in the footsteps of his father, Duane Kurisu, chairman/CEO of aio Hawai‘i, the parent company of HONOLULU Magazine.) His company’s acquisitions include Fort Street Mall properties on Hotel Street—the Pantheon building where Marugame Udon is and the nearby Hansmann Building—as well as the Hawai‘i Building on Bethel. By October, a new Yi Fang Taiwan Fruit Tea shop had opened on 1042 Fort St. Mall with a Seoul-based bakery and café chain setting up next door.

 

Kurisu was finalizing details on various projects when this story went to print, but explained how a kind of mini Koreatown is taking shape (see “A New Mini Koreatown in Downtown”).

 

His company is also converting the office building above an existing 7-Eleven at 1060 Bishop St. into an apartment building with 52 affordable units. He sees government support of such adaptive reuse as a way to revitalize aging buildings and as a buffer against the pandemic trend of people working remotely or in hybrid capacities.

 

Real estate reports show Honolulu’s Downtown office vacancies shot up to 14% in 2021, compared with 9.9% in 2019. Although traffic issues, a lack of affordable parking and homelessness remain barriers, commercial real estate specialist Matt Bittick says the area shows an encouraging trend. He cites Honolulu’s most recent Downtown office vacancy rate of 11%, compared with the U.S. national average for downtown markets of 17%. Bittick says more people moving into Downtown and Chinatown will help spur growth of surrounding businesses.

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Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino

Before the pandemic, Douglas Emmett Inc. began the conversion of the 25-story granite-and-glass office building at 1132 Bishop St. into The Residences at Bishop Place. The company reports completion of 300 stylish studios and one- and two-bedroom apartments; the moderately priced rentals are at the mauka end of Fort Street Mall. Walk into the building’s renovated lobby and you’ll find a transformed interior, with a fitness center overlooking the lobby, a coworking space, a café and more coming.

 

Another next-generation developer working to revamp Downtown is Patricia Chang Moad, 36, of Continental Assets Management. Her company is redeveloping the former Remington College building on Bishop into an AC by Marriott Hotel (see “Remington Redo to Turn Former College into Downtown Hotel”). She sees the renovation of the 1967 building as a complement to Chinatown’s cool, artsy real-world vibe, “where all the fun stuff happens.” Locals and tourists, she says, want to hang out, eat, drink, see art, go to Hawai‘i Theatre, and be where “it’s not too expensive; it’s accessible.”

 

Moad sees this wave of revitalization as an opportunity to connect Downtown and Chinatown and make it a more cohesive, thriving community. “Everyone always complains Downtown’s dead after 6,” she says. “With our hotel coming up on the block, I think it will hopefully activate this area, especially at night, and kind of connect it to Chinatown.”

 

There are three hotels planned in the area, with the Wo Fat project gleaning the most attention (see “Wo Fat Building in Chinatown Is Becoming a Chic Boutique Hotel”). Another 16-story hotel is proposed on Nimitz Highway near Kekaulike Mall along the path of the long-delayed Honolulu rail transit line.

 

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Fort Street Revival

 

While some businesses fled Downtown during the pandemic, Hawaiian Host Group went in the opposite direction, relocating  to the Judd  Building, “Hawai‘i’s first skyscraper,” at the corner of Merchant Street and Fort Street Mall. President and CEO Ed Schultz says he moved the candymaker’s headquarters from industrial Iwilei to solidify the company’s deep “connection to the past and to help preserve Honolulu’s historic architecture for decades to come.”

 

He did it to create an environment where employees want to work, eat and play nearby. “Downtown Honolulu was the best place we knew to do this with a space that would attract and retain high-level creative performers,” he says.

 

And, despite moving its campus hub to Aloha Tower Marketplace, Hawai‘i Pacific University remains committed to its Fort Street roots. “HPU’s strategy is to create a triangle of collegiate experience in Downtown Honolulu, with our growing presence at Waterfront Plaza, Aloha Tower Marketplace and Lower Fort Street Mall around Pioneer Plaza,” HPU President John Gotanda says. The university’s athletics department now occupies five floors of leased space at Pioneer Plaza, and is scheduled to complete renovations at 1042 Fort St. Mall for a new science building by 2024.

 

“I’m really, really optimistic about the future of Downtown and Chinatown,” says Ed Korybski, president and executive director of the Fort Street Mall Business Improvement District. “I feel like it’s lumbering right now, and it’s about on the cusp of really taking off.”

Cindys Lei Shop
Karen Lee and mother Cindy Lau, founder of Cindy’s Lei & Flower. Shoppe. Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino

The Holdouts

 

Customers stop by Cindy’s Lei & Flower Shoppe, drawn by the fourth-generation landmark and the scents of ginger and tuberose floating out across the sidewalk. “I feel like the heart of Chinatown is really here, Maunakea Street between King and Hotel,” says Karen Lee, who began stringing flower lei as a child. Her mother—90-year-old founder Cindy Lau—still comes in daily. How safe does Lee feel these days? “My answer will depend on what’s happened that day,” she says. “Was there a stabbing that day? Or five people sleeping on the street?” Still, Lee is devoted to the family business and helping people celebrate “somebody we loved and didn’t want to forget.”

 

When the pandemic sent most of us home, both Chinatown and Downtown got scarier, says Elizabeth O’Brien, executive director of The Arts at Marks Garage. She’s worked nearly 19 years in area arts and was shocked by what she saw in 2020: “Everything was boarded up, and all you saw were crackheads and crazies wandering the streets like the zombie apocalypse.” O’Brien sees people gradually returning as the arts community gathers momentum. She hands over a colorful map listing places with HEART, an acronym for Heritage, Entertainment, Arts & culture, Restaurants, Theater & performing arts.

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Wes Fong. Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino

Cleaning Up the Neighborhood

 

For both newcomers and longtime business owners, the vision of a Downtown/Chinatown renaissance goes hand in hand with reducing crime, addressing homelessness and literally cleaning up the neighborhood.

 

Attorney, business professor and longtime Chinese Chamber of Commerce leader Wes Fong praises recent cleanups that have gone beyond past Band-Aid upgrades. He evaluates progress by the path to his favorite places for smoked tea duck, dim sum, mooncakes: “I don’t have to walk over any bodies on the sidewalk, literally, to go and eat.”

 

Fong, 79, remembers when strip clubs, peep shows and prostitution were Hotel Street’s main businesses. He salutes the upscale restaurants that have taken root and hopes their successes will revive traditional Chinese restaurants, too. “We used to go to Tin Tin Chop Suey at midnight for wonton min; now Chinatown closes up at 5 o’clock,” he says.

 

Fong celebrates that Chinatown has diversified to include Vietnamese, Filipino, Thai and Korean businesses. And he hopes to attract more visitors to eat char siu bao, shop for gifts you won’t find in a chain store and visit cultural landmarks. “I don’t want to be gentrified,” he says, to the point “we lose Chinatown.”

 

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A Day In the Life of Downtown and Chinatown.

Photos by Aaron K. Yoshino

Crime May Be Down, But …

 

Honolulu Police Maj. Calvin Sung and Lt. Henry Roberts cite average monthly statistics that show crime has declined 13% in 2022 in Downtown/Chinatown, compared to 2021. Pandemic funds paid for more community police patrols, and programs addressing homelessness have had impacts. But Sung and Roberts know random encounters on the street can be disconcerting. And residents and businesses have complained that problems remain.

 

Hawai‘i Sen. Karl Rhoads has lived in Chinatown for 25 years. “The real big issue that is kind of holding Downtown and Chinatown back is … people are afraid to come down here even though the crime rate in Waikīkī is probably higher,” Rhoads says. “Businesses are just sick to death of having to clean up after people every morning, and it just suppresses good activity.”

 

He’s long worked to resolve issues with people on the street. “We’re still not doing very well on the mentally ill homeless people, and it’s not for lack of trying,” Rhoads says. He credits a large positive impact to Blangiardi’s success in negotiating with River of Life to move its free food distribution out of Chinatown in March 2022 after 35 years there. Rhoads and others noted that they supported the move for years but it was never accomplished until now. He also favors passage of laws that “make it so a judge can order people who are seriously mentally ill to take their meds.”

Chinatown Crime Stats

Overall, Blangiardi says he’s committed to a Downtown and Chinatown transformation, citing a list of ongoing projects that include installing new security cameras, improving parking, modernizing city buildings, fixing roads and sidewalks and enhancing the landscaping. His team also works with the community on cleanups. A challenge, he noted, is navigating long-standing government bureaucracy. “One of the things that I’ve learned quickly in city government is it’s never just one department,” he says. “You want to fix a broken sidewalk, it’s like four different departments.”

 

And collaboration with Honolulu City Prosecutor Steve Alm is critical to cutting area crime, Blangiardi says. He also hopes to grow the city’s fledgling CORE—Crisis Outreach Response and Engagement—program, which sends emergency medical technicians and community health workers to help with nonviolent homeless-related calls.

 

Veteran lawmaker and outgoing City Council member Carol Fukunaga agrees that adding police, investing in affordable housing, funding Downtown renovations and supporting programs for the homeless should be high priorities for the city. “When you think about Chinatown, everyone has their favorite lei shop, everyone has their favorite noodle shop, and it’s a sense of place that is very uniquely about Hawai‘i,” she says.

 

Nicole and Brandon Reid opened Manifest as a café, cocktail bar and club 13 years ago, and have managed to navigate the pandemic and an array of neighborhood challenges. Nicole Reid says they remain firmly committed to Chinatown, which they see as the heart of Honolulu and a uniquely local place. Reid appreciates her landlord, Christi Vicari-Coito, for continuing to make improvements to her properties, which helps to support all the surrounding businesses. “She has continually renovated all these places,” Reid says, with plans to redo more soon. “When I see that mindset of growth, I’m hopeful.”

Mapping out Change.

The near future of Chinatown