Catherine Toth Fox: Downtown Honolulu used to be so vibrant. What happened?

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Two weeks ago, on my way to lunch in Rangoon, I met some colleagues at our downtown Honolulu office. I can count on two hands the number of times I’ve been back to the office over the past two years, and it’s obvious just by walking around that most downtown workers aren’t back full-time either.

What was once a bustling neighborhood, with lunch lines outside restaurants and a constant stream of smartly dressed professionals, is now a shadowy ghost town. Empty restaurants, “For Rent” signs, an eerie void that gapes and consumes.

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

It’s heartbreaking.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wandered the streets of downtown Honolulu and caught the bus from elementary school to meet my parents, who both worked at what is now Hawaiian Telcom. (They retired when Verizon was.) I’ve spent a lot of time roaming these streets, browsing the aisles of 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 nonprofit conservation organization—and I’ve seen the neighborhood evolve over the decades into a vibrant neighborhood of trendy restaurants and boutiques alongside beautiful historic buildings , art galleries and old shops selling lei, manapua and crack seeds.

Danny Kaaialii, co-owner of Encore Saloon, The Daley and Pizza Mamo – all located on the corner of Hotel Street and Nuuanu Avenue – thinks the same way. He has a deep connection to downtown Honolulu: his grandfather worked as an usher at the Hawaii Theater, his father was born on Keawe Street in Kakaako, and his family picked up Manapua and watched karate movies in Chinatown.

He opened Encore Saloon in 2016 at a time when this neighborhood boasted some of the best restaurants on the island – The Pig & the Lady, Senia, Fete. First Fridays were in full swing, block parties were an annual thing, and it seemed like nothing could change that.

Then Covid-19 happened.

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

“Chinatown oscillates between vibrant, prosperous and busy and seedy,” says Kaaialii. “2016 felt like growing into that vibrant phase… It felt like this surge of momentum was pushing the community onto a more stable footing and the focus was on the success of our community rather than the challenges which persist in the narrative and life of downtown Honolulu.”

That challenge, he explains, is perceived danger — a sentiment that has resurfaced during the pandemic. Even my co-workers who once lined up outside the Fighting Eel for sample sales and ate poke bowls at Tamarind Park hesitate to walk down Hotel Street.

“It’s depressing, it’s empty, there are (fewer) restaurants and certain areas are patchy,” said House Speaker Scott Saiki, who represents part of downtown Honolulu. “There was a time when you could walk down the sidewalk at any time of the day and meet people you knew. You would stop and talk, you met people for lunch. Downtown should be one of the liveliest and most intellectual areas of our state. But at the moment it doesn’t always look like that.”

The reason: People – including me – are not back in the office yet.

According to Colliers, Oahu’s vacancy rate rose to 14.18%, the highest rate on record. The report pointed out that the main reason for the rise is that companies are continuing to use hybrid working arrangements and delaying their return-to-office deadlines. Most downtown businesses, like Kaaialii’s three restaurants, rely on daily foot traffic.

Cristina Nishioka opened her bakery Beyond Pastry Studio on Alakea Street in September 2021 in the midst of the pandemic. Having recently moved from Singapore, she loved the vibe and energy of the inner city districts. “I think downtown is very important and the core of Honolulu, where important businesses, museums, art, historic buildings and cultural attractions are concentrated,” she says.

Beyond Pastry Studio shops in downtown Honolulu's Catherine Toth Fox column
Cristina Nishioka, who opened her downtown bakery Beyond Pastry Studio last year, is optimistic sales will pick up. Courtesy: Cristina Nishioka/2022

Nishioka is optimistic that business will pick up as workers slowly return to the office — and seek out their ube cream cheese ensaymadas and chocolate cinnamon babkas. Their sales have already increased 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 downtown.

“I hope downtown becomes a place where people not only work but also stay because it’s accessible, affordable, and a safe place,” says Nishioka.

Saiki, who is running for re-election this year, says one solution is to get people moving back downtown — and that doesn’t just mean 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 attract residents and visitors to the area. “St. Patrick’s Day, Chinese New Year – these are special events that attract people, albeit not on a daily basis. If we rely on companies to hire back-office workers, I’m not sure employers will.”

But more people mean more foot traffic for businesses — and more activity will likely at least make you feel safer.

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

“We need to see people helping to brighten our image and make other people feel welcome,” he says. “I want this area to be safe, healthy, bustling, family friendly, a tourist destination and valued. I would like to look out the windows of my shops and see lots of people: Tutu and babies in prams and dogs and children and workers.”

“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 intent on enforcing this.”

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