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Chinatown at a crossroads

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Here's a really cool article about Honolulu's Historic Chinatown and its current transition from seedy to trendy.

Chinatown at a crossroads

Trade-offs loom as the balance shifts from seedy to trendy

Source: Honolulu Star Bulletin

The attempt to revitalize and gentrify Honolulu's Chinatown juxtaposes two cultures. While people are still found passed out on Chinatown streets, like the man above seen Friday night along Nuuanu Avenue, the area is courting an upscale crowd.


LIKE many involved in the budding arts-and-culture revival of the historic Chinatown district, artist Rich Richardson worries about it going too far.

In his worst nightmares, he sees a gentrified zone where Starbucks and big-box retailers have muscled out corner lei stands; where mom-and-pops run by area residents are nudged aside in a "real estate boom for martini drinkers from the financial district."

"I'd hate to see the momentum run rampant over the people who live and work here," said Richardson, assistant director of arts incubator The ARTS at Mark's Garage, which has played a key part in the revival.

That such fears are now being entertained shows just how far Chinatown has come.

Since the rebirth of the Hawaii Theatre beginning in the 1980s, a revitalization is slowly taking back areas once ceded to drug dealing and prostitution. Hip new galleries and bars now add to the timeless bustle of the area's Chinese core.

The challenge of maintaining that momentum while protecting Chinatown's unique historical, social, ethnic and cultural mix will be taken up at the Hawaii Theatre Thursday at the first "Chinatown Summit," called by Mayor Mufi Hannemann.

"This is an opportunity to bring all the stakeholders together to really take stock of how far we've come and where we're going," Hannemann said. "Chinatown looks a lot better today than it did yesterday. But we need to take it to the next level."

Chinatown indeed seems to be at a crossroads.

Urban renewal efforts typically consist of at least two waves, the first triggered by a single catalyst like the resurrection of the Hawaii Theatre, said Miguel Garcia of the Ford Foundation, which has been involved in reviving urban areas elsewhere and has funneled grant money to support Chinatown's arts expansion.

Members of the "Life is a Dream" cast rehearsed Friday for an upcoming performance at The ARTS at Marks Garage.


A line formed Friday on Nuuanu Avenue for Indigo restaurant.


The first wave typically spawns a hip, artsy night district, followed by several years in which the real estate market "tries to figure out what to do next," which is where Honolulu is now, Garcia said.

Encouraging that second wave holds great potential benefits for the whole state. Aside from spurring the arts, Honolulu would have an alternative visitor destination to Waikiki and a place for cooped-up cruise-ship passengers to unload some of their cash. But there is a downside.

"It's usually that second wave that creates a tipping point for the whole area, and some small businesses and others are often hurt by that," he adds.

On the bright side, the community is likely to have time to prepare for that wave, which seems unlikely to break soon due in part to indecision in the real estate market.

Nearly everyone involved agrees the area cannot reach its full potential until it attracts more residents who live and work in the area, be they sculptors or Asian shopkeepers. This tends to creates real "communities," rather than areas where the sidewalks are rolled up at night and the streets given over to vice.

The city opened one avenue when it passed an ordinance two years ago allowing rental lofts to be created in the upper floors of Chinatown's historic low-rise buildings.

Lion dancers helped bring in the Chinese New Year along Hotel Street in late January.


Lauren Asinsen, left, and Stacy Stout, from the cast of "Life Is a Dream," break during rehearsal for an upcoming performance at The ARTS at Marks Garage. The view looks out from the gallery at Chinatown.


"We need to see a real change in the quality and quantity of housing. We need to increase it and also change it to allow for more extended families to live together, which is the traditional way for Asian cultures," said Wing Tek Lum, whose family operates a real estate investment company.

But landowners see few incentives to go that route, due to the huge cost of bringing aging sewer and electrical systems up to modern codes. Then there's the maze of permitting and other requirements related to Chinatown's designation as a historic district, which also restrict what landowners can do.

"The cost is incredible," said Ernie Hunt, who owns the historic Mendonca Building on Smith Street, built in 1901 and now rented out as office space.

"If you look at the costs of creating lofts, it far outweighs how much you could get in rent," he said, adding that if landowners charged enough rent to recoup the costs, area rents would soar, driving out many residents and businesses.

The Ford Foundation's Garcia said there is an array of grants and tax credits available to address such problems, which Chinatown landowners may not be aware of. These include a historic preservation tax credit that can actually be "sold" to outside corporations or investors for cash that can help finance renovations.

As Chinatown thrives in some areas, it remains a gathering place for the homeless. On Friday, Hank Taufaasau, left, put the finishing touches on some detailing for a jazz club he is opening soon on Nuuanu Avenue.


Some are looking to the city to help get the ball rolling by providing city-owned land in and around the area for new housing.

Hannemann, a longtime supporter of Chinatown who talks fondly of eating there and watching movies at its long-gone theaters as a child, said he's open to suggestions from "motivated developers."

"That might be one way to for the city to participate," he said, adding that the city's main role is merely to bring stakeholders together.

"What the city can do for Chinatown is what it did for Waikiki, but without spending billions of dollars. It's about making sure the necessary infrastructure is in place and letting motivated stakeholders run with it," he said.

Lingering drug-dealing, homelessness and aggressive panhandling are other areas of near-unanimous concern.

A homeless couple sat on steps at the corner of Bethel and Hotel Streets.


Local merchants praise police for paying more attention to the area, but the number of reported crimes actually has grown in recent years, though it eased a bit last year, according to Honolulu Police Department figures.

"We get some of the perpetrators and others move out. But new faces come in," said Sgt. Gary Lum Lee of the Chinatown substation.

The number of free meals handed out each month by the River of Life Mission on Pauahi Street has increased from about 9,000 a few years ago to 13,000 last month, said Shevy Gardner, its director of operations.

"We know we're serving drug addicts and prostitutes. But they're somebody too," she said.

Others in Chinatown would like to see a harder line taken to clean up the streets.

"That's the old Chinatown, the image of homelessness and crime. We have to clean that up. Many other people would love to live or do business there, but things like that are holding them back," said Gifford Chang of the Chinatown Merchants Association.

Bonnie Parsons' tiny fashion accessories shop Bonnie's Closet has a recessed entrance on Nuuanu Avenue favored by shelter-seeking homeless. Almost daily, she has to call the police to remove them or step over the sleeping squatters, who urinate and spit in the area.

"(Shoppers) look in the window like they want to come in, but they see the vagrants and just keep on going," she said.

Here is a look at the notorious Hotel Street, as seen on Thursday.


She had a problem with the homeless people particularly last month, which in turn was a "difficult" one for sales, she said.

The arts revival may offer a solution. Events such as First Fridays and "gallery walks" have brought more desirable foot traffic to the area that, many merchants say, temporarily drives out bad elements.

"As more activity comes, and there is more use of the area's businesses and the theater, the less of a bad element appears. That's just the way it happens," said Sarah Richards, president of the Hawaii Theatre Center.

There is general agreement that the arts revival has led to more instances of cooperation between community factions than disputes.

But the question of how much Chinatown should be cleaned up is shaping up as a key topic for the summit, and is characterized by more than one observer as a struggle between the arts community and Asian merchants.

An overly sterilized Chinatown removes the "edgy" feeling on which vibrant Bohemian districts thrive, said Ed Korybski, executive director of the nonprofit Honolulu Culture and Arts District.

Likewise, gentrification causes rents to climb, driving out the starving artists and hard-working immigrants who make Chinatown tick, arts advocates say.

"We don't want it to become Disneyland," Korybski said.

But Chang argues that too much control could smother needed change. The area's history has been one of change, with first Chinese immigrants, then Japanese and newer Vietnamese and Filipino immigrants contributing to its evolution, he said.

"You can't say 'no change,'" Chang said.

The debate begins on Thursday.

A photo of the 1886 Chinatown Fire on River Street.



From bloom to seed and back again, Chinatown has come full cycle in the last century and a half.


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...More news stirring up about Chinatown, things are looking pretty interesting.

Designs on Chinatown

Source: Honolulu Advertiser


Over the past 40 years, a string of urban renewal programs have focused on Chinatown's 15 square city blocks of open-air markets and antique buildings.

Those programs have pumped millions of dollars into razings and renovations and spurred four mayors and countless residents and merchants to offer solutions for long-standing blight.

The latest effort to revitalize Chinatown, and chip away at its reputation for drugs, prostitution and sleazy bars, comes as art galleries are moving in and crime is decreasing. But residents and business owners say they still grapple with persistent problems

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Here's some other news related to downtown and around Chinatown too.

Both sources: Pacific Business News

Restaurants use happy hours to keep office workers downtown


Happy hours are helping downtown Honolulu restaurants turn day into night by encouraging office workers to remain beyond the close of the business day.

Some of the tens of thousands of office workers who comprise the lunch crowd are helping the restaurants to thrive on weekday nights.

Call it the happy-hour hook.

Indigo Eurasian Cuisine on Nuuanu Avenue, for example, offers daily happy hours from 4 to 7 p.m. to appeal to those very employees who leave downtown to make the commute home. Happy hours, where discount drinks and pupu are available, are usually reserved for Friday nights but offering them daily has served the restaurants well in attracting potential evening diners.

"The concept was to keep the bars busy so when the first diners arrive in the evening, they think, 'Wow, this is a busy, happening place -- we came to the right place,' " said David Stewart, co-owner of Indigo.

Indigo has had success with the happy hours since it started them about five or six years ago, Stewart said. Dinner accounts for 60 percent of Indigo's weekday business, thanks in part to the happy hours, he said.

Palomino Restaurant in Harbor Court is seeing similar success.

"The happy hours are a huge draw for us," said Ari Anne Johnson, a supervisor and cocktail waitress at the restaurant's Rotisseria Bar. "It's a funny thing because I'll see people at lunch here for their business meetings and they'll tell me, 'Oh, I don't want to drink,' and they're the same people that come right after work."

Like Indigo, Palomino's customer base is primarily downtown bankers and office workers who already are in the area and stay after work because of the convenience.

"There's definitely no problem keeping them here," Johnson said.

Other restaurants simply offer classic service, value and a family-oriented atmosphere to retain the daytime customers.

Don Murphy, owner of Murphy's Bar & Grill on Merchant Street, said he has never hosted happy hours but does get a lot of downtown workers coming in to unwind.

"We like to say, all our hours are happy here," he said. "We've been here for almost 19 years and we've built a good base clientele. We just provide a good comfortable place for people to come."

Okay this sucks and i hope that some how this potential deterrant and problem can be solved quickly!

Downtown parking squeezes companies

Parking rates in downtown Honolulu are up 10 percent this year, and the increase is squeezing the wallets of workers and employers.

Rates are running $180 to more than $300 a month, if there are spots available. Some companies are no longer offering spots to anyone but the top executives -- and even they have to pay. And in office buildings that are nearly full, visitor parking has been eliminated or severely limited.

The higher rates and the availability squeeze mark a sharp turn from just a few years ago, when property managers threw in cut-rate parking to sweeten lease deals and most garages were happy to let early birds in for pocket change.

Honolulu parking rates are rising much faster than the national average, which Colliers International figured at between 3 percent and 4 percent in its 2005 North American parking survey.

"The office rental market is tight and garages are full; it's a landlord's market," said Jeffrey Hall, senior director of research at CB Richard Ellis in Honolulu.

Despite the efforts of city planners to push more businesses toward Kapolei, many companies are resistant to get too far from the action downtown and the state's booming economy has drawn new tenants who want to be close to Bishop Street for quick access to clients and for credibility.

With downtown office vacancy now less than 10 percent, and parking lots being cleared to make room for new buildings, there are hundreds fewer spaces than even a year ago. Some buildings, like 1100 Alakea St., have resorted to tandem parking to accommodate more vehicles.

Typically, a company gets assigned a parking stall based on the amount of space rented. A 500- to 1,000-square-foot office space would entitle the company to one parking stall, depending on the lease terms. The company would still have to pay for the stall.

According to CB Richard Ellis research, an unreserved parking stall costs between $160 and $190, depending on the building and its class. A reserved stall ranges between $210 and $300.

Premium office buildings like Bishop Square, which includes the American Savings Bank Tower and Bishop Tower, charge $330 for a reserved stall and $220 for an unreserved stall. The price went up $30 last year and could go up a similar amount this year for all 1,149 stalls, said Nelson Aglanao, facility manager for Bishop Square.

Open parking lots like the one at 888 Nuuanu Ave. charge as much as $12 for two-hour parking.

Average daily parking rate at most lots is about $30.

Companies say what's getting even more expensive is the cost of parking validation for customers.

At Bishop Square, a book of 50 half-hour validation stickers costs $104.16, and one-hour stickers $208.33. Some companies limit the use of parking stickers while others don't offer validated parking.


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The news continues...

Chinatown plan earns high marks

Source: Honolulu Advertiser

The city plans to tear down a two-story building on River Street

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Another Chinatown update:

'Incubator' for small businesses in works

The brick building at 83 N. King St. is being renovated as the nonprofit Pacific Gateway Center makes plans to install 10 to 12 kiosks for low-income people to sell their handicrafts and food products. The building also will house a meeting hall and offices.


Source: Honolulu Advertiser

Chinatown was born out of dreams of a better life and a brighter future for countless immigrants who got by day to day on little more than a strong work ethic and hope.

So what better place, asks Tin Myaing Thein, than a century-old, red brick building on North King Street to showcase the wares of low-income "micro-entrepreneurs" looking to earn their way out of poverty?

"This is the place to be," says Thein, executive director of the Pacific Gateway Center, as she crouches under scaffolding in the future site of her so-called "retail incubator." It will aim to jump-start small businesses for people who have a marketable food product or handicraft but no access to startup funds.

"Chinatown has traditionally been a place where immigrants come," she says. "It was very important for us to be here."

The building site, 83 N. King St., is now undergoing work on its foundation and termite-eaten floorboards. When it opens in the fall, the incubator

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More Chinatown stuff. :)

More than any other O'ahu neighborhood, Chinatown is a different place for everyone who visits

Source: Honolulu Magazine

For some, it

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