Normally, I am not inclined to write reviews about shopping center openings. That’s the purview of advertising copywriters.
But the unveiling of the new International Market Place in Waikiki got me curious. Like many who grew up near Waikiki in the 1960s and ’70s I felt the urge to check it out.
The old International Market Place was a funky, fun place where we used to go to buy puka shell necklaces, Tahitian bikinis and to listen to Don Ho sing at Duke Kahanamoku’s.
That was when Waikiki was still a playground for local residents as well as tourists.
It was when you could find parking. Before Waikiki slowly became encased in concrete. Before it was overtaken by rows of glossy showrooms selling luxury items we had no intention of buying.
Back then, the old International Market Place was alluring for its many inexpensive food stalls, curio shops and lush tropical landscaping. We could afford to hang out there.
Not anymore. Although the new International Market Place deserves praise for preserving the big trees and lush landscaping, it gets a big thumbs down for its disappointing array of luxury stores that have noting to do with Hawaii.
First the admirable things about the project: Developers Taubman Centers, San Francisco-based CoastWood Capital Group and landowner Queen Emma Land Co. went out of their way to preserve the 160-year-old Indian banyan tree at the entrance, as well as several large monkeypod trees throughout the property.
“They spent an astronomical amount of money to keep the Indian banyan tree healthy and strong,” said arborist Steve Nimz. “They put in more large trees than they took out. I have never been involved in a project so dedicated to taking care of the trees. Instead of seeing trees as a detriment, they saw them as an asset to draw people in.”
When I visited the market place, I saw firsthand how the Indian banyan is actually helping sales by encouraging shoppers up to the second-floor shops. All kinds of people were coming up the escalator to have to have a look at the treehouse perched in the upper branches of the banyan. In other malls, it can often be difficult to lure shoppers above the first floor.
Another positive about the market place is the extreme care the developers took as over the months construction workers inadvertently uncovered 38 ancient human skeletal remains. Archaeologists earlier had discovered three ancient Hawaiian burials in their test excavations before the construction began.
“The developers were very proactive from the beginning,” said Hal Hammett, the managing archaeologist on the project.
Hammett said the landowner, Queen Emma Land Co., wanted to be sure everything was done right. “They went way beyond what is required by law,” he said.
The developers knew before construction began that burials would be found because of historical writings about thousands of Hawaiians who lived in Waikiki in pre-contact times, Hammett said.
They also knew the possibility of finding iwi (bones) was certain because the market place construction was on the kind of sandy soil early Hawaiians favored for burials in Waikiki. Massive pre-contact burials had already been found at nearby projects. In 1991, construction workers uncovered 24 ancient burials by the site of the old Moana Hotel cottages. And in 2002, 44 human burials were discovered during construction at Kalakaua and Kealohilani avenues.
“All of the iwi kupuna (ancestral bones) found during ground disturbance on the market place project were kept on the site. All were treated in a respectful, culturally appropriate manner and protected from further disturbance,” said general manager Michael Fenley.
Some of the burials were kept where they were found and others were moved to a re-internment facility on the market place property, where access is restricted to Hawaiian cultural-practices descendants of the deceased.
“You and I might not like it, but the flavor of old Hawaii is going by the wayside.” — Stephany Sofos, real estate analyst
Now back to what makes the new International Market Place such a disappointment. It is a cookie-cutter luxury mall featuring the same expensive shops you see in big cities on the mainland, in other Waikiki emporiums and at the Ala Moana Center. Most of the businesses are not from Hawaii.
Only two of the 10 restaurants that eventually will open in the market place are local. They are Roy Yamaguchi’s Eating House 1849 and Goma Tei Ramen.
Only 10 of the up to 90 retail operations that will be in the market place are Hawaii-based. They include Crazy Shirts, Honolulu Cookie Co. and Maui Divers Jewelry.
Longtime local resident David Ezra said, “Well, what can you say? I would call it Ala Moana Center II. Remember when there were actually a lot of stores at Ala Moana where local folks could shop? Now, with a few exceptions, it is off limits for most people. What a shame.”
After Honolulu resident Judy Wing Lee visited the market place on Aug. 26, the day after the grand opening, she wrote on the International Market Place’s Facebook page:
“The International Marketplace has lost its schlocky charm … Gone are the souvenir stores … Gone are the kiosk vendors … Gone are the aloha wear stores … The Food Court is gone, too!!! All replaced by high-end restaurants and designer shops. IMP needed updating but not a drastic, unrecognizable makeover like that!”
George Deden walked over from his Waikiki apartment to check out the new market place. “What a disappointment,” he said. “The banyan tree is still there, thanks to Steve Nimz. But all the cute little shops are all gone. Nothing is there for us any longer.”
He said he went into Saks Fifth Avenue and “the aroma of all those fragrances did me in 5 feet into the store. I walked home.”
Deden is right about about the fragrances. Walking into Saks, I was struck not only by its unfriendly, white, in-your-face lighting, but also by the overpowering scents of perfumes the cosmetics vendors were trying to sell. If you have allergies, steer clear of the place.
Connie and Rufino Amigo, both retired hotel workers, were taken aback by the prices. They had come into town from their Mililani home to check out the market place.
“The grounds are very attractive,” Connie said. “I love all the plantings and the orchids. It is such a refreshing relief from the rest of Waikiki but when you go in the shops, it’s a shock. You see the prices and say whoa! I saw a simple blouse at Saks for $238. It’s not practical. It’s not for local people.”
Real estate analyst Stephany Sofos says the shops at the new International Market Place are there primarily to attract higher spending visitors, not local people.
She said the cookie-cutter look at the market place and the sameness seen in other upscale malls in Hawaii is driven by hard financial reality. That includes the soaring cost of land leases and development costs.
“As much as you might say you would like to have interesting, esoteric local type stores in a mall, you have to go with known stores that deliver,” Sofos said. “The cookie-cutter formula works. When you have spent $500 million on a development like the International Market Place you can’t afford to be wrong. You have to pay your mortgage. You have to pay your investors.”
“You and I might not like it,” she said, “but the flavor of old Hawaii is going by the wayside. Hawaii is a global destination now competing with places like Singapore, Tokyo, New York and San Francisco. You have to hit your mark in retail or you will die.”
Also disappointing was the costly parking. The management has been touting its 700 parking stalls. But there’s a catch. You have to spend at least $10 to get a validation. But the validation pays for only one hour of free parking. After that, its $2 for each of the following two hours. And then it goes up to $6 for each additional hour.
I have heard Ross Dress For Less on Seaside Avenue is a better place to park in Waikiki. Ross gives two hours free parking for any amount of purchase.
So, International Market Place, I may return to enjoy the big banyan tree and to be amazed by the treehouse and to relax in the comfortable koa rocking chairs on the second floor but not to park my car or to buy anything. And I get the feeling that’s perfectly OK with you.