Chinatown, one of the oldest neighborhoods on Oahu, consists mainly of two-story buildings with shops on the first floor and living quarters on the second. Towering over those buildings are several mid-to-high-rise apartment towers – some deemed as affordable housing.
But some residents say there is need for more affordable housing in the 15-block neighborhood, especially for those aged at least 65, who make up 18% of Oahu’s population of 1 million.
“People just need housing,” said Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock, president of the Chinatown Business Association. “The city isn’t affordable. A lot of seniors are on fixed income, and some are on social security right now. Many seniors barely receive $600 a month.”
According to city officials, Chinatown has about 14 apartment buildings, including two already designated for older adults.
The city has commissioned another building that is slated to be completed in 2023 and will be called the Halewaiolu Senior Residences, with 156 units. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported that the groundbreaking ceremony took place in June, six years after the city chose The Michaels Organization, based in New Jersey, for the $93 million project.
Earlier this year, Hawaii-based Ikenakea Development proposed another six-story affordable housing building for people who are at least 55 years old on Kekaulike Street. The Ikenakea development is by a private company and differs from the city’s projects.
Chris Flaherty, co-manager of the project, said developers recently lowered the height of the building from the planned 22 stories in response to concerned residents, which he said would help the developers qualify for a tax credit award from the Hawaii Housing and Finance Development Corp.
The $30 million building would have 49 studio units for residents that are only earning 30% to 50% of the area median income. It would also be across the street from the planned HART rail station, although there are questions about when rail will actually reach Chinatown.
Flaherty cited a market study, which showed there is a need for affordable housing in Chinatown.
“The senior population is underserved,” he said.
The proposal comes as Honolulu is generally struggling to provide affordable housing on an island where the median price for a home rose above $1 million earlier this year.
Adjacent to the affordable housing building, the local developers also pitched plans to build a 15-story hotel that would provide 240 rooms, 180 valet parking stalls, a sky lobby, rooftop restaurant, a fitness center, and a community and meeting space.
The cost of the hotel project is $127 million.
“I’m personally Chinese and Hawaiian,” said Kali Watson, co-manager of the project. “So for me, putting (up) a hotel will not only enhance the community but it will also revitalize it.”
So far, there’s only one hotel in the area, according to city officials. That’s the Aston at the Executive Centre Hotel downtown.
Construction is slated to begin for the affordable housing building in 2023 and for the hotel in 2024, although the developers still need to apply for a permit from the Department of Planning and Permitting, then go before the Honolulu City Council for a final decision.
Flaherty said the project would employ 500 construction workers, and hire up to 100 employees after opening.
But not everyone was receptive to the idea of more high-rise buildings, especially given that the hotel and apartment building will be built next to each other near the harbor and could block views.
Chinatown resident Christine Trecker opposed the projects, citing concerns about preserving the historic area. She says she understands why some people are supportive of the project amid frustrations over crime and homelessness, along with piles of trash on the the ground and graffiti-ridden and boarded-up buildings.
“People are at their wit’s end about Chinatown,” Trecker said. “It’s in terrible shape, with its large underserved chronic homeless population and a criminal element that preys on them and the larger community. Some are hoping to pave over these problems with housing and hotel high-rises.”
“It’s not going to be an attractive visitor destination,” she continued. “The proposed hotel would be right on busy Nimitz Highway in an unsafe, derelict area. Who would want to stay in Chinatown right now?”
Robert Greenberg, who has lived in Chinatown for 21 years, supports the project and hopes it will bring more customers for local businesses and low income housing for older adults.
“I think the desire is there,” said Greenberg, who lives a block away from the proposed projects in a 28-story building that’s also affordable housing.
Shubert-Kwock said that even non-Chinatown residents have come to the neighborhood board to voice opposition to the projects due to the possibility they will block views of the ocean.
“If they have to lose the view, lose the view,” Shubert-Kwock said, who is also a member of the Downtown-Chinatown Neighborhood Board #13. “What is more important? Somebody’s survival, raising their family or your f-ing view?”
Some residents also expressed concern about the fate of the CQ Yee Hop and Co. Ltd. building, a more than century-old structure that has served many purposes, including a storage unit, housing for single men from China and a gymnasium.
The building would be next to the proposed hotel on Nimitz Highway.
In response to the concerns, Flaherty said the building would be maintained but renovated into a restaurant and a museum.
“I feel that the hotel, especially being next to the transit (line), will be positive,” Flaherty said. “It will bring a tremendous amount of new life that will show off the Chinatown area as it was and as it is.”
“I think it’s going to be a catalyst for good change,” he added. “We hope to keep meeting with the community and be responsible for our development.”
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