Where’s downtown Honolulu?

It depends on who you ask.

City Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga considers downtown to stretch from the mountains to the sea, between South and Alakea streets to the east and Pali Highway and River Street to the west.

The Downtown Neighborhood Board oversees both downtown and Chinatown and defines its jurisdiction as between River Street, the H-1 freeway and South Street, down to the ocean. Board member Stanford Yuen said Chinatown is a small portion of this area, from River to Bethel Streets and from South Beretania to North King Streets.

A mix of residents and commuters can be seeing walking along Fort Street mall during the afternoon.
The open-air Fort Street Mall has long been a downtown focal point. Noelle Fujii/Civil Beat

State Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland said when she was growing up, downtown was considered to be everything below Vineyard Boulevard, including Iwilei, the arts district, the financial district and the state Capitol district.

“It really depends, I think, on when a person may have come here to Hawaii or maybe generational, too,” said Chun Oakland. “It’s hard to say.”

Of course, the population of downtown also varies depending on the borders. According to the 2015 Hawaii Data Book, there were 15,620 residents in the Downtown Neighborhood Board’s jurisdiction in 2010.

Menagerie Of City-Dwellers

Downtown is home to a mix of working professionals, families, the elderly and Hawaii Pacific University students. Consider it workforce housing, Fukunaga said, comprising office workers, doctors, firefighters and teachers, among others.

Asian immigrants also call this place home, so many languages are spoken on the streets, Chun Oakland said.

Because residents are located close to stores like Walmart and Safeway, have easy access to transportation and don’t have yards to take care of, many tend to stick around.

Dolores Mollring, a member of the Downtown Neighborhood Board, has lived in the Kukui Plaza condominiums since 1976.

Kukui Plaza features two towers with 908 residential units.
Kukui Plaza features two towers with 908 residential units. Noelle Fujii/Civil Beat

“My money was spent here because I was shopping. They had Liberty House, they had Honolulu bookstore, you know, all these places. And so I spent my money here, I worked at First Hawaiian Bank and I lived here,” she said. “So yeah, this is my community.”

Jean Galloway is another longtime Kukui Plaza resident. She’s lived in one tower and worked at her business – first a real estate office and now a herbal medicine store – in the other since the 1970s.

“I’ve seen it, before Kukui Plaza came up, this used to be Princess Theater over there, this right across was a mechanical shop, it’s a saimin – you heard of the 25 cent saimin?” she said, pointing toward Fort Street.

She still finds the area convenient. At nearly 90 years old, she cannot see herself driving anywhere.

Eileen Miura, owner of Fujikami Florist, moved her shop to its Pali Highway location a year ago. The area is just outside the financial district, so there’s less traffic and more parking for customers, she said.

While she doesn’t live downtown, she’s familiar with it because she used to visit when her grandfather had the shop near Bishop Street. She remembers coming down on the weekends to get Icees and snacks near Fort Street Mall.

“Now when we walk, there’s just a lot more food places,” she said. “Whereas before it was Kress store, I think there was Ritz (department) store, it was a clothing store for all the old-timers.”

Commerce And Crime

Downtown had been Hawaii’s center of commerce for decades because of its close proximity to Honolulu Harbor, Yuen said.

“At one time I think it had most of the population in the territory centered in the downtown area,” he said. “And then over the years it just continued that trend that you see more buildings coming up and of course with the government buildings there, Iolani Palace. So it just maintained its character.”

Fort Street Mall is located on one of Hawaii’s oldest paved streets, and it’s an area that has been spruced up over the last 14 years, Yuen said.

Bishop street lies in the heart of the city's Financial District.
Bishop Street passes through the heart of the city’s financial district. Noelle Fujii/Civil Beat

Before the Fort Street Mall Business Improvement District was formed in 2002, the area was notorious as a haven for homeless people and drug dealing.

That reputation hasn’t been completely shed, but today office workers frequently drift down to the mall for a bite at one of the many eateries.

The improvement district levies a fee on its 18 members based on their square footage. That produces about $400,000 a year to supplement the cleaning and security work done by the city, said Victor Lim, BID chairman.

“The fact that there is a security presence there really adds to the safety of the area,” Yuen said.

Homeless people are still part of the street scene, especially outside the mall. Some are medically frail, and there’s still a population of drug users.

“They’re so much more open about their use, than anybody I’ve ever seen before, that it’s kind of shocking to me,” said Bill Hanrahan, project director for Safe Haven, a mental health center on South Beretania Street.

The shelter hasn’t had any problems filling its 25 beds. And five or six people come in each day asking about its day programs, said Ema Bell, an outreach worker for Mental Health Kokua, which operates Safe Haven.

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