Atkinson, Makaloa, Pensacola-to-Waimanu, or straight down Keeaumoku and damn  the torpedoes — everyone has a favorite way into Ala Moana Shopping Center. For years, for anyone who shops on Oahu, it’s actually been the heart of clogged Honolulu.

It’s an almost emotional place, especially at Christmas time.

But now, the utilitarian Sears store is gone, replaced by the newly opened and much ballyhooed Ewa wing. Bloomingdale’s and, sometime next year, relocated versions of Nordstrom, Foodland, and Shirokiya will serve as anchor tenants. Last week, Pacific Business News reported that Valentino, Dolce & Gabbana, and Celine will move in sometime in 2016, for a total of 54 new stores in the new wing.

Ala Moana Shopping Center plaza.

Detail of the new Ewa wing plaza at the Ala Moana Shopping Center.

Linny Morris

I was curious about how the center looks and feels now — and how the Ewa wing fits in, especially with the ultra-luxury, six-story, seven-building condo redoubt called Park Lane going up along the Ala Moana Boulevard frontage from Piikoi to just shy of the Neiman Marcus store. Park Lane is scheduled for completion in late 2017.

I’m happy to report that it all fits pretty cleverly, with most of the old driving circuits throughout the center lot still open.

The Park Lane’s incursion atop the center’s parking lot follows a similar one by another luxury project, the vault-like, blue-glass One Ala Moana condo, plunked atop a chunk of mauka-Diamond Head parking.

On a recent Friday morning, I drove into the center via Waimanu Street, up the ramp, and left into the gigantic, now nine-level (formerly four) mauka-Ewa parking structure, which contains 4,500 of the center’s 11,000 total stalls.

I parked on the empty top floor to check out the 360-degree city views. From the lot’s makai parapet the view is dominated by the expanse of the center itself, its welter of flat roofs covered with a sea of photo-voltaic panels and big ventilation ducts. Here and there, little pyramid hip roofs in various styles and materials pop up above the fray, like so many fanciful and incoherent sentiments. In the middle of it all, a big, open gable roof, sheathed in translucent panels, shelters Center Court.

The anchor-tenant department stores, once visually dominant, look to be nearly submerged by the metastasizing center, with three levels of retail stacked stem to stern on its main axis and two cross-axes. The Hookipa Terrace, circa 2005, with its Mai Tai Bar and California Pizza Kitchen, is the only fourth-floor eruption … so far.

Scanning the towers and construction cranes surrounding it, I figure Ala Moana is just keeping pace with what’s rising around it. If it’s metastasizing, so is Honolulu. It’s the new paradigm.

Chicago-based General Growth Properties, the current owner, claims that Ala Moana, with 2.5 million square feet of retail, is the world’s largest open-air shopping center; but we’ve all heard the superlatives before. GGP is the fourth owner of the property since business tycoon Walter Dillingham paid $25,000 in 1912 to buy 82 acres of coralline wetland, once used to harvest salt, from the estate of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop.

The Dillingham Corp. finally opened the Ala Moana Shopping Center in August 1959, a week before Hawaii became a state. The low-slung, two-level center, designed by Seattle architect John Graham, housed 87 shops and 4,000 parking stalls. The Sears, Shirokiya and McInerny department stores were the anchor tenants. Seven years later, Phase II, also designed by Graham, added two new anchor tenants, Liberty House and JC Penney, and doubled the number of stores to 155 with 7,800 places to park.

As a kid, I was in awe: the biggest shopping center in the world, or something like that, everyone said.

Memorable, in Graham’s shopping center, was the delightful collection of water features — pools, fountains, even a mini-stream — ornamented with hundreds of koi fish, as well as sculpture by prominent artists Bumpei Akaji, Charles W. Watson, George Tsutakawa and Edward Brownlee. There was a big aviary, and an abstracted, multi-colored, bas-relief map of Oahu that welcomed shoppers at McInerny’s mauka entrance. Saucer-shaped planters added to the easy-breezy, futuristic, optimistic mood of the place. Some of the art remains.

View of Ala Moana Shopping Center from the Ewa parking structure.

View of “Ala Mo” from the Ewa parking structure.

Curt Sanburn

Authentic kapa patterns still decorate the underside of the Liberty House (now Macy’s) cornice, itself designed to “reflect the softness of Polynesia, both in its structural form and detail,” according to a 1970 booklet published by Dillingham that proudly detailed the “Art at Ala Moana — Shopping Center of the Pacific.”

The booklet noted the “puka palms.” All around the perimeter of the center, full-grown coconut trees rose from the ground floor up through ceiling holes to rustle above the mall level. Most of them are now gone, and fine art seems to have been downgraded over the years to the kuleana of a single store: Neiman Marcus.

In 1982, the center was bought by D/E Joint Venture, a partnership of Japanese retail powerhouse Daiei and U.S. insurance giant Equitable. A jumble of renovations, additions, and retail swap-outs followed, including the “Palm Boulevard” phase, which replaced McInerny and the Carol & Mary dress shop with a hui of high-end retailers — Armani, Chanel, Dior — clustered around the new Center Court, to be anchored by Neiman Marcus in Phase V in late 1993.

Locals were offended by all the chilly storefronts and costly luxe, clearly aimed at high-end tourists. An unnamed retail analyst told Hawaii Business Magazine in 1992 that Palm Boulevard “backfired in terms of (the center’s) image in the community.” Hurt feelings led management to respond with the “Ooh, Aah, Oh Wow! Ala Moana” jingle and ad campaign, aimed at local shoppers, in the mid-1990s. D/E sold the center to GGP in 1999 for $810 million.

Leaving the parking lot, I walk the perimeter of the center hoping to orient myself first with familiar surroundings, circling around Macy’s forlorn parking lots, and up the escalator past the Tsutakawa fountain onto the mall-level promenade, headed Ewa. The parade of sunny shoppers, even on a Friday morning, is eye-popping, as it always was. Chic, dressed-up women and men sporting man-buns mingle with map-wielding tourists, packs of kids, and slipper-shod elderly men and women.

Past Center Court and Long’s, the promenade seamlessly becomes the new Ewa wing, extending into Sears’ ghost-space, now a big, irregular plaza ringed with two levels of stores and studded with coconut palms. It marks the intersection of the new cross-axis created by the Bloomingdale’s entrance and the boldly screened mauka-Ewa parking garage, reached by bridges.

The massive but orderly concrete canyon between the Ewa wing and the garage, above the Waimanu Street entrance ramp, is itself impressive, a rigorously detailed expression of horizontal concrete. It would not be a bad element at a new airport.

Irregular black stone planters, wood benches and a raised pool edge provide lots of seating in the plaza. A few small, astro-turfed hillocks invite shoppers — or their kids — to lawn loll. A finely slatted, cage-like tower rises to one side, but I can’t figure out what it’s for, or what it means. Three giant, bronze-like pendant lights hang inside. It must look good at night. Hard by an escalator, a giant Christmas ornament houses Santa, who flashes me a shaka when I raise my iPhone to take a picture.

Santa atop Ala Moana Shopping Center

Santa atop Ala Moana Shopping Center

Linny Morris

The architectural language of the breezeways and roofs is stripped down to an arid simplicity of bare, earth-dark posts and rafters supporting translucent sunshades. There is little that is soft or expressive. The architect is Seattle-based retail specialist Callison; landscape architect is by PBR Hawaii and Associates. According to the center’s public-relations firm, three artworks have been commissioned for the Ewa wing, to be installed by the end of next year.

I browse in the sleek Bloomingdale’s, full of unfamiliar designer boutiques and great finish details: pale pink Corian-like counters, pod-like lounge chairs, glass walls incised with tropical flora and, of course, “Bloomies’” signature black and white tile floors. The bathrooms are as nice as those at Neiman Marcus. A 14-ounce bag of pistachio nuts sells for $32.50. In the Home department, there’s a down-filled standard bed pillow for $540.

At the Ewa terminus of the promenade, beyond the plaza, sits a gaping maw already emblazoned “Nordstrom.” Escalators are in place for the Shirokiya and Foodland Farms stores at ground level. Foodland, with frontage on Piikoi, will be directly beneath Nordstrom; Shirokiya takes over the old Sears auto center space. All three big stores won’t open until next summer.

Nearly 20 years ago, in a column in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, humorist Charles Memminger bemoaned the fancy-pants changes then happening at “Ala Mo.”

He wrote fondly about the center’s odors that lingered in his memory after the sources were long gone: the makai pastrami smells from Lynn’s Deli, the popcorn scent of Woolworth, the teriyaki smells of Wong’s Okazu-Ya.

“I’m not saying Ala Moana shouldn’t have changed. I’m just a little sorry it did,” Memminger wrote.

The world is changing faster than ever. It can be disorienting. But I found my bearings at Ala Moana along the same, sky-filled axis that has always been there, just longer and more, with harder, simpler edges and tighter budgets, even as the retail gets more luxurious and global.

I wonder what will happen to the forlorn parking acreage at the Diamond Head end of the center, and what will happen to the landmark Ala Moana Building itself, whose many medical and dental tenants reportedly have been told by GGP that leases won’t be renewed beyond 2019. What then? Demolition for another, much bigger residential tower? And what about when — and if — the HART train terminus sets up shop over Kona Street?

Somehow, through it all, I think we’ll always find our way to Ala Moana. Happy shopping! Oops — I mean, happy holidays!

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