Catherine Toth Fox: Downtown Honolulu Used To Be So Vibrant. What Happened? - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Two weeks ago I met a few co-workers at our downtown Honolulu office, en route to lunch at Rangoon. I can count the number of times I’ve been back to the office in the last two years on two hands, and it was obvious just walking around that most downtown workers aren’t back full time, either.

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What was once a vibrant neighborhood, with lines at lunchtime outside of restaurants and a constant flow of smartly dressed professionals, is now a shadowy ghost town. Empty eateries, “for lease” signs, an eerie emptiness that’s gaping and consuming.

Homeless people, always a fixture in downtown and Chinatown, seem more prolific now on the deserted sidewalks. And some of my usual spots — Harpo’s Pizza, Square Barrels, Long’s Drugs, Starbucks on Bishop Street — are closed.

It’s heartbreaking.

I’ve been wandering the streets of downtown Honolulu since I was a kid, catching the bus from elementary school to meet my parents, who both worked at what’s now called Hawaiian Telcom. (They retired when it was Verizon.) I spent a lot of time on these streets, browsing the aisles at Liberty House and buying Lisa Frank stickers at Rainbow & Smiles.

Many of my jobs have been downtown — at a florist, a title company, a newspaper, a conservation nonprofit — and I’ve seen how the neighborhood has evolved over the decades to become a lively area with trendy restaurants and boutiques alongside beautiful historic buildings, art galleries and old-time shops selling lei, manapua and crack seed.

Danny Kaaialii, co-owner of Encore Saloon, The Daley and Pizza Mamo — all clustered on the corner of Hotel Street and Nuuanu Avenue — feels the same way. He has a deep connection to downtown Honolulu: His grandfather worked as an usher at Hawaii Theatre, his dad was born on Keawe Street in Kakaako and his family would pick up manapua and watch karate movies in Chinatown.

He opened Encore Saloon in 2016 at a time when this district boasted some of the best restaurants — The Pig & the Lady, Senia, Fete — on the island. First Fridays were in full swing, block parties were an annual thing, and it didn’t seem like anything could change that.

Then Covid-19 happened.

A normally crowded noontime thoroughfare at South King Street and Bishop Street in downtown Honolulu has seen less-than-usual traffic and pedestrians and an unusual emptiness since the beginnings of Covid. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

“Chinatown ebbs and flows between being vibrant, successful and bustling and being seedy,” Kaaialii says. “In 2016 it felt like it was starting to grow into that vibrant phase … It felt like this wave of momentum was pushing the community into a more stable footing and the focus was on our community’s success instead of the challenges that persist in the narrative and life of downtown Honolulu.”

That challenge, he explains, is the perceived threat of danger — a feeling that has resurfaced during the pandemic. Even my co-workers, who once stood in line at sample sales outside Fighting Eel and ate poke bowls in Tamarind Park, are hesitant to walk down Hotel Street.

“It’s depressing, it’s empty, there are (fewer) restaurants, and certain areas are sketchy,” says House Speaker Scott Saiki, who represents a part of downtown Honolulu. “There was a time when you’d walk down the sidewalk at any time of the day and you would run into people you knew. You’d stop and talk, you met people for lunch. Downtown should be one of the most vibrant and intellectual areas of our state. But right now, it doesn’t always appear that way.”

The reason: People — including me — aren’t back in the office yet.

According to Colliers, Oahu’s vacancy rose to 14.18%, the highest level ever recorded. The report pointed to companies continuing hybrid work arrangements and pushing back their return-to-office timelines as the main reason for the increase. Most downtown businesses, like Kaaialii’s three restaurants, depend on daily foot traffic.

Cristina Nishioka opened her bakery, Beyond Pastry Studio, on Alakea Street in September 2021, smack in the middle of the pandemic. Having recently moved from Singapore, she liked the vibe and energy of downtown districts. “I think downtown is very important and the core of Honolulu, where there is a concentration of important businesses, museums, art, historic buildings and cultural landmarks,” she says.

Beyond Pastry Studio Honolulu downtown businesses Catherine Toth Fox column
Cristina Nishioka, who opened her downtown bakery Beyond Pastry Studio last year, is optimistic that sales will increase. Courtesy: Cristina Nishioka/2022

Nishioka is optimistic that business will pick up as workers slowly return to the office — and seek out her ube cream cheese ensaymadas and chocolate cinnamon babkas. Her sales already are up compared to the first quarter of this year.

Like Kaaialii, she wants the city to help make this a safer place to encourage people to return to downtown.

“My hope is for downtown to become a place where people would not just work but also stay because it’s accessible, affordable and a safe place,” Nishioka says.

Saiki, who is running for reelection this year, says one solution is to get people to return to downtown — and that doesn’t mean solely in offices.

“There should be a more concerted effort to bring people back, if not to the office at least to attractions,” Saiki says, adding that events would draw residents and visitors to this area. “St. Patrick’s Day, Chinese New Year — these are specific events that draw people, though not on a day-to-day basis. If we rely on companies bringing back office workers, I’m not sure employers will be doing that.”

But more people will mean more foot traffic for businesses — and more activity will likely result in, at the very least, a perception of feeling safer.

“We need people in places and spaces,” Kaaialii says, adding that too many downtown buildings are empty or abandoned.

“We need to see people help brighten our image and make other people feel welcome,” he says. “I want to see this area be safe, healthy, bustling, family-friendly, a tourist destination and appreciated. I would love to look out of my businesses’ windows and see a ton of people: tutu and babies in strollers and dogs and kids and working people.”

“I want it to be easier and safer to run a business down here,” he says. “I’m hopeful mostly because of the community. The people here are vested in seeing this through.”


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About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Latest Comments (0)

What's happened to Chinatown is that the city has let it become a homeless shelter where increased crime and seediness rule. First, clean up the streets and people will return. Get First Fridays back, along with all the holiday parties, including St. Patrick's Day and Chinatown will become vibrant again. Many small business have invested in being there and they need help to keep it clean and to their stores from being vandalized. Neighboring downtown is a little different animal because workers now realize that they don't have to pay $300/mo. to park and commute into town. Companies have downsized offices, so there is significant vacant space. The old FHB building on Union Mall is being converted to condos, which should help retail since HPU moved out, but again, the city needs to clean up that part of Fort Street, where there have been some violent crime recently, most related to the homeless. It was once estimated that 50K workers commuted to town on a daily basis, that may not be the case now, so I'm curious why doesn't traffic seem lighter?

wailani1961 · 1 month ago

the biggest loss for downtown, even before covid, was HPU moving its campus to Restaurant Row. the building they were in is being converted into condos. all those college kids and staff are gone from downtown. you could see the affect when HPU moved out way before covid hit and it just carried over to the telework crowd continuing to do so. the next few years is gonna be a rough road to recovery. already seen many small shops closing down since the restrictions were lifted. we see how much HPU old building brings in residents to make up for the loss. and if anyone worried about the unsavory elements, the Weed and Seed program is back for Downtown/Chinatown. it has some affect, you see less vagrants. still a work in progress, but a step in a direction. good or bad, we see.

Jus_a_moke · 1 month ago

I lived in the Executive Center for 2 years, pre-pandemic. The neighborhood was lively then, I loved walking to China Town, down Bishop Street to the water. The banks are closing, the city government has less people in the offices, HART moved out. The colleges have less of an influence. Maybe the revival of the farmer's market, some new cultural events would help the neighborhood.

rebgagne · 1 month ago

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