As a resident of downtown and Chinatown since 1988, I have watched the latter area rise and fall, and rise and fall.
Today, it is dying, in large part due to recent city housing policies.
While Kekaulike Mall and Maunakea Marketplace were once thriving, today they are shells of their former selves. Shops are closing. Stalls are not rented. Customers are dwindling. The same is true for the storefront businesses. The shopkeepers are hurting, badly.
The Wo Fat Building in Chinatown
The City Council is considering the adoption of Resolution 14-121, which would clarify the income mix for residents of Chinatown Gateway Plaza, Marin Tower and Harbor Village.
I remember when these three residential properties were open-air parking lots. I remember when Mayor Frank Fasi proposed building the housing to reinvigorate the area. I remember attending the groundbreakings. We believed prosperity was coming.
I remember storekeepers asking when they would be occupied. They desperately needed the residents to purchase goods to keep the businesses running. I support Councilmember Carol Fukunaga’s proposed draft, which would restore the tenant mix in the properties to those originally envisioned by city planners.
It was never intended that all tenants be of the lowest income category. Nor was it intended to deny eligible tenants a little higher up on the income ladder from renting places in these properties, particularly when vacancies exist. The heart of the draft is about the city keeping its promises.
Chinatown’s residents and businesses deserve the kind of diversity of tenants proposed under the original city plan. The type of residents that will make Chinatown thrive, not extinguish it.
The original mix had no tenants below 60 percent AMI (area median income), today there are 309. The original mix had 157 tenants in the 60 percent to 80 percent AMI. Today there are 72. The original mix had 182 tenants in the 80 percent to 120 percent AMI. Today there are 49. The original mix had 184 tenants in the over 120 percent AMI. Today there are 61. The city administration is creating a ghetto, though some may say it already exists.
Without a mix of incomes the residents will not be able to afford goods and services from many of the businesses in the area — from attending shows at the Hawaii Theatre and purchasing clothing to eating at restaurants and patronizing art galleries.
Without that income, some of the businesses will fail. The businesses, most of which did not exist when the housing was built, depend on a mix of local residents walking from home and those who live elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the city is not renting out vacant units.
There are 15 vacancies in Chinatown Gateway Plaza, 8 in Harbor Village, and 8 in Marin Tower. Also in Chinatown is another city property with 23 vacancies. The 54 vacant units are costing city taxpayers as these units must be maintained but do not generate any income.
Additionally, the ground floor commercial space in Chinatown Gateway Plaza, which was previously occupied by the Small Business Development Center operations and restaurants, including Wendy’s, has been vacant for at least 18 months.
Everyone agrees that low-income housing needs are critical.
Faith Action for Community Equity (FACE) and others are to be applauded for pushing for low-income housing, but not exclusively, to the point of creating a ghetto.
We cannot simply disregard the people whose homes are here, in a neighborhood that comprises a diversity of income groups, living side by side, able to support businesses, and which is as deserving of the protection we have extended to other unique communities.
We who live here understand the full picture. The city administration and the Council need to look at that, not the narrow picture as postulated and envisioned by FACE.
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Lynne Matusow has lived in the Downtown/Chinatown community since 1988, severed on the Downtown-Chinatown Neighborhood Board from 1988 to 2015, and is on her condominium board. She is a native New Yorker and graduated from Indiana University.